Despite Bankruptcy And Illness, Bob Murray Remains A Loud Voice For Coal
By Jeff Brady
November 7, 2019 - The man most closely linked to President Trump's push to make coal great again — and the head of the country's largest privately owned coal mining company — is now the latest to reckon with the industry's decline.
Bob Murray announced in October that Murray Energy had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Murray has stepped aside as president and CEO but will remain chairman. He'll give up his ownership stake of the companies involved in the bankruptcy. But the vocal executive, with his close ties to the Trump administration, plans to continue advocating for coal.
Bob Murray at the St. Clairsville, Ohio, headquarters of Murray Energy, which has declared bankruptcy. The coal executive pushed the Trump administration to roll back environmental regulations.
Photo by Jeff Brady, NPR
Murray will turn 80 years old in January. He's less steady on his feet these days and uses oxygen to help him breathe. He suffers from a lung disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
He says it's not related to years of working underground in coal mines, but doctors say it can be difficult to know exactly what causes the disease. Murray says three hospitals have rejected him for a lung transplant because of a history of strokes.
"Not only am I fighting for my own life, but I'm fighting for the life of my employees — my company," says Murray.
After starting as a miner, Murray became an executive in another coal company in his 30s, and then built Murray Energy, which currently has about 7,000 employees.
In recent years, Murray continued to expand even as the U.S. coal market reached its lowest level of consumption in four decades.
"A lot of coal companies had undergone bankruptcy around 2015, 2016," says Natalie Biggs, a coal analyst at Wood Mackenzie. She says Murray Energy made it through that period, "and was able to purchase a lot of assets off the back of that bankruptcy boom."
But as the coal market kept declining, a voluntary reorganization in bankruptcy became the best option.
"My goal is to keep the company together," Murray says. "Keep it together for my employees."
Murray will lose ownership of the companies in bankruptcy. Some of his unionized workers may lose health care and pension benefits. And the filing is a political loss for President Trump, who campaigned on saving the coal industry.
Bob Murray has had the Trump administration's ear. He donated $300,000 to Trump's inauguration and not long after that met with Energy Secretary Rick Perry to present an action plan to help coal. Photos from the meeting show the two men hugging.
Bob Murray has close connections to the Trump administration. In his corner office there's a model of Air Force 2, with Vice President Mike Pence's autograph on the wing.
Photo by Jeff Brady, NPR
While Trump rolled back a number of environmental regulations that Murray requested — including President Obama's Clean Power Plan to regulate coal plant emissions — the administration was not able to deliver the subsidies for coal plants that Murray wanted.
He argues that coal, with fuel stored on site, is more reliable than natural gas that's piped in and renewable energy that depends on the sun and wind. Still, coal is losing market share to these cheaper and cleaner ways of generating electricity. Murray argues that makes the electric grid less reliable.
"People are going to become alarmed, and all of a sudden they're going to forget this nonsense called climate change," says Murray. He predicts that will come during a winter storm and that people will freeze to death.
"Frankly this is just a scare tactic," says Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which seeks to move the country toward cleaner renewable energy.
She says there are smart people running the country's power grids. They take into account every coal plant closing and make sure the grid remains reliable.
"Empty promises about bailing out coal plants, or reviving the fortunes of the coal industry, are just distracting our country from the real work we need to be doing," Hitt says.
Murray's climate denial and coal booster-ism are evidence of a key element of his personality: Once he's concluded he's right about something, Murray doesn't give in.
Murray Energy Corporation headquarters in St. Clairsville, Ohio. As the largest privately owned coal company in the country it employees about 7,000 people.
Photo by Jeff Brady, NPR
Another example of that is from August 2007, when there was a tragic collapse at a Murray Energy mine in Utah. Six workers were trapped, and 10 days later three rescuers died when another section of the mine collapsed.
"Worst thing of my life. I take it, obviously, to my grave," says Murray.
A government report concluded there were flaws in the mine design. Murray's company was fined more than a million dollars for safety violations, eventually reduced to about $950,000.
Yet even today Murray contends his company did not cause the mine to collapse.
"A lot of blame being pointed. In the end, I was correct, it was an earthquake," Murray tells NPR.
Seismologists at the University of Utah say that's just not true. The earthquake was the result of the mine collapsing.
Even now, as Murray struggles for breath just walking across the room, he's still pushing for what he believes. As his company was preparing for bankruptcy, Murray delivered a speech in West Virginia, calling on federal regulators to subsidize coal and keep his industry alive.