ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio — Late in the afternoon of Nov. 12, Robert Murray got the news he had been waiting for — a judge said his company’s lawsuit to stop the Obama administration’s central climate change policy would move forward, and ordered Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy to sit for a deposition in the case.
Mr. Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corp., America’s largest coal-mining company and possibly Ms. McCarthy’s harshest critic, said he would be there personally for the deposition. He said he expects her to have to personally defend the policies that have devastated coal regions.
“I want to be looking at her the whole time,” the 75-year-old said, rising from his desk at his headquarters in eastern Ohio and walking gingerly across the room, showing effects of the three times he has broken his neck — two of them stemming from mining accidents.
For Mr. Murray, who fancies himself as one of President Obama’s greatest enemies, the looming court case represents the best chance to stop what he and his employees routinely refer to as the “war on coal,” a series of policies this administration has issued to crack down on energy that scientists say produces greenhouse gases.
The company’s lawsuit challenging the EPA’s Clean Power Plan now has the full backing of 26 states, and some legal analysts say the case ultimately could derail the president’s environmental agenda. Murray Energy already has faced off against the EPA in court and won, including in a Supreme Court case that struck down the administration’s mercury and air toxin standards this year.
“I believe I’ve understood the political process for at least 20 years but when we’ve got the greatest destroyer that America has ever seen in the White House, Barack Obama, it became obvious that he was going to destroy entire sectors of our society,” he told the Washington Times during a lengthy interview in his office. “Half of the people here are not working since he took office. Half, in the coal industries I think he’s doing more damage to this country than a terrorist could do — a terrorist.”
In St. Clairsville and other areas where his company has a foothold, Mr. Murray is leading a self-funded public relations campaign that has turned coal miners into part-time activists.
Many of his 7,000 employees — some of them grizzled veterans of a dying industry, proud of the coal dust on their hands and faces but anxious about whether they will have a job at this time next year — have stickers on their helmets reading, “Stop the war on coal — fire Obama.”
Some say they have the same message emblazoned on yard signs in front of their homes, and they often sound honored that their company has become the leading foe of Mr. Obama’s ambitious environmental agenda. Mr. Murray seems to take great joy in firing up his troops.
But fewer and fewer people are waving the flag for coal, and even Mr. Murray acknowledges his industry is in trouble.
The number of workers in the U.S. coal industry continues to decline as companies slash labor costs to try to stay afloat. Murray Energy Corp. cut at least 1,400 jobs over the past six months. Fewer than 70,000 people now work in the coal mining industry, down about 20 percent from five years ago, federal figures show.
Hundreds of coal-fired power plants have been taken offline, and utilities have announced plans to retire more in the coming years, cutting coal’s share of American electricity generation to about 37 percent, down from nearly 50 percent at the start of Mr. Obama’s tenure. Overall domestic consumption of coal has fallen by about 25 percent over the past decade and is estimated to continue dropping, according to federal data.
A number of top coal mining companies have filed for bankruptcy, and some coal-sector leaders have given the industry a glaring black eye by trying to escape retirement and pension benefits they have promised to their employees.
As a whole, the industry is in a deep financial hole, but the seismic shift in the energy sector can by no means be blamed entirely on the president’s policies. Mr. Murray and other coal proponents acknowledge that natural gas has played an almost equal role.
Natural gas rises
Aided by a drilling technique known as fracking, which has helped unlock previously inaccessible fuel in North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, U.S. natural gas production has increased to such a degree that gas produced more electricity than coal earlier this year for the first time in history.
But Mr. Obama’s policies signal mortal danger. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which Murray is challenging in federal court, promises to shrink coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation to 30 percent or less, the agency’s projections show.
For the president, it’s a deliberate choice.
“We’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky,” the president said this month when explaining why he was rejecting the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, though his underlying argument undoubtedly applies to coal production.
In his 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama promised that anyone who tried to build a coal-fired power plant during his administration would go bankrupt.
White House officials wouldn’t respond to Mr. Murray’s “terrorist” remark, a comment that went above and beyond the CEO’s usual tough talk toward the administration. But the White House — and its supporters in the environmental movement — point out that they are working to keep struggling coal communities afloat as the industry inevitably declines.
The administration has proposed pouring tens of millions of dollars into coal communities for job training, infrastructure investments and other efforts that, in theory, would put displaced coal miners back to work.
Some leading environmentalists say coal titans such as Mr. Murray would be better served working with the government to retrain and redeploy coal miners rather than engaging in an ongoing rhetorical and legal war with the president.
“One thing I’d like to see from them is coming to the table and talking about how to build a bright future for the region,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the largest and most successful anti-coal initiative in the nation. “There’s a huge opportunity for the restoration of old mining sites across the region. That’s something that could put a lot of people to work.”
Others in the environmental movement, however, argue that Mr. Murray and others should have little, if any, voice in the dialogue.
“It should be clear from their long history of self-serving actions that coal company executives don’t deserve a seat at that table,” said Joe Smyth, a spokesman for Greenpeace.
Some of those self-serving actions, Mr. Murray and other industry leaders acknowledge, have damaged the sector’s reputation to a serious degree. Mr. Murray points to the ongoing Patriot Coal fiasco as an example of how the coal sector has damaged its own credibility.
“They set up a sham there,” Mr. Murray said of Patriot Coal, which was formed in 2007 with assets formerly belonging to Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Coal Inc., leading coal companies based in St. Louis. Critics, including Mr. Murray and thousands of miners, maintained that Patriot was set up to fail and to become a dumping ground for pension liabilities and other financial obligations that the companies didn’t want to honor. Company leaders have vehemently denied that assertion.
This summer, Patriot announced plans to eliminate its union contract, potentially leaving miners without pension benefits.
“To me, this is about life and death. You cut off their health care, which is what has been proposed in bankruptcy court,” United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said in August. “They are going to make people die out here, and I happen to think that’s worth fighting for.”
As the fight over miners’ pensions plays out in court, Mr. Murray has turned his attention to the looming legal battle with the EPA. His company, along with 26 states, has sued the EPA to stop the Clean Power Plan, a sweeping proposal that forces states to come up with plans to cut carbon pollution from power plants.
Lawsuits challenging the plan are expected to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the administration’s mercury and air toxin standards this year after the EPA failed to consider the costs of its proposal.
But the administration, for all intents and purposes, accomplished its core objective in spite of the court’s decision. The standards were so complex and required so much state planning that they essentially were implemented by the time the court ruled. The EPA acknowledged that fact in a press release after the decision.
Critics have concluded that the administration’s central strategy is to delay court action as long as possible while forcing states to begin complying with the underlying environmental regulations.
“They gamed it. We won, but we didn’t win anything,” Mr. Murray said of the Supreme Court decision on the mercury and air toxic standards.
He fears a similar fate with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and, along with the states that have joined the lawsuit, is seeking a stay from a federal judge to stop the regulations until a final ruling is made.
The next step in the process will be the deposition of Ms. McCarthy, which the EPA is fighting.
“EPA disagrees with the district court’s decision to allow the deposition of Administrator McCarthy. Before the district court issued its opinion, EPA filed a separate petition asking the Fourth Circuit to block the administrator’s deposition because Murray Energy has not shown that she has unique knowledge essential to their case or that the information they seek is unavailable from other sources,” the agency said in a statement. “Under well-settled case law, the deposition of high-ranking executive officials is barred absent extraordinary circumstances. In light of the district court’s decision, EPA filed a supplemental brief [in federal court this week] that explained why the district court abused its discretion in permitting the administrator’s deposition to go forward.”