Trump caused Murray Energy's bankruptcy

A revelation from the largest private coal company's bankruptcy filing.

Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis—written by me, Emily Atkin.

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But please, make sure you drink a glass of water first. You know what I always say: H2O makes the neurons flow. (That is the first time I’ve ever said that).

Bob Murray versus the truth

For many years, I have listened to Bob Murray say things that don’t seem very true.

In 2014, for example, the founder of America’s largest private coal company threatened to sue the Obama administration over its newly-unveiled Clean Power Plan, because he said Obama was lying about climate change. “The earth has actually cooled over the last 17 years,” Murray said.

A few months later, Murray warned that if the Clean Power Plan were to take effect, it would be the reason his business would be destroyed. “Grandma is going to be cold and in the dark with what they’re doing,” he said, referring to environmentalists. (Later, he called Obama “evil.”)

Murray also made a claim that seemed kinda false in 2016, a few days after Trump won the presidential election. With Trump in office, Murray said, “coal will come back.”

These have been Murray’s central talking points for as long as I remember. Climate change is fake. Climate regulations will be the reason the coal industry dies. Trump can, and will, bring the coal industry back. All things that seem, well, like a bunch of big ol’ lies.

So it was interesting to me when yesterday, Murray Energy became the eighth coal company this year to file for bankruptcy protection—and the main filing didn’t blame environmental regulations for the company’s recent downfall. In fact, the filing blamed the bankruptcy of America’s largest private coal company on a trade war started by President Donald Trump, and monsoon season made worse by climate change.

Kinda makes ya think, doesn’t it?

A revealing court document

Bankruptcy proceedings are public, which means we are going to learn a lot about Murray Energy’s operations in the coming months. That’s evident from the first big filing: a 39-page document laying out the reasons Murray Energy needed to declare bankruptcy in the first place.

The filing was written by Robert Moore, Murray Energy’s current president and CEO, and signed under penalty of perjury.

Moore begins to sketch out the reasons on Page 3, paragraph 7—and it turns out, those reasons focus far more on time period of the Trump administration than the Obama administration. “The thermal coal markets that Murray traditionally serves have been meaningfully challenged over the past three to four years, and deteriorated significantly in the last several months,” he writes:

This sector-wide decline has been driven largely by (a) the closure of approximately 93,000 megawatts of coal-fired electric generating capacity in the United States, (b) a record production of inexpensive natural gas, and (c) the growth of wind and solar energy, with gas and renewables, displacing coal used by U.S. power plants.

That sentence does not mention environmental regulations as the reason for these shifts—which is likely because Moore knows he can’t say it in court. As Brad Plumer wrote in the New York Times over the summer, “The truth is that utilities had already been shifting away from coal anyway, finding cleaner gas, wind and solar to be more attractive investments. The Clean Power Plan, which was fiercely opposed by industry groups when it was proposed in 2014 and never took effect, was quickly being outpaced by market forces.”

More revealing than that omission, however, was Moore’s next reason for Murray Energy’s bankruptcy:

At the same time, demand for U.S. coal from international utilities has been subject to its own perfect storm of negative forces*, and the European benchmark price for thermal coal has halved in the last year. The impact of depressed demand and pricing in both domestic and international markets has hit Murray hard in recent months.

The asterisk leads to a footnote, which reads (emphasis mine):

Overall weakness in the global demand for coal has been driven by a number of factors, including: low liquefied natural gas prices; a recent trade war driving Russia to increase exports; mild weather across the Northern Hemisphere led to a reduction in demand for heating in both Europe and Asia; higher freight costs; and a prolonged monsoon season in India which kept demand depressed while conditions cleared for a record eight months.

The recent trade war driving Russia to increase exports was because of Trump. The prolonged monsoon season in India was because of climate change.

So Murray Energy’s bankruptcy was caused by Trump and climate change—one thing Murray insisted would save his company, and the other he insisted did not exist.

A moment of honesty

The truth is, Bob Murray has always known that the coal industry was doomed to fail—even before the Clean Power Plan took effect. “[Coal] isn't coming back. It's permanent," he said at in industry conference in 2014. "Virtually all of it is permanent."

His goal was never to prevent that outcome. It was just to be the last company standing. His company strategy, he said in 2014, “will sustain us as the industry is destroyed."

This, however, was the last time Murray was ever honest about that outcome. Since then, he’s lied to his own workers, instilling false optimism that their jobs and livelihoods would return. I saw this myself when I went to West Virginia in 2017 to report on EPA hearings to repeal the Clean Power Plan. “It definitely looks good for coal, looks good for my future,” a Murray miner told me at the time. “I’m happy to be working for coal, and I feel pretty confident about the future.”

Depending on the outcome of the bankruptcy proceedings, Murray workers who were lied to for so long may now have to face a battle over their benefits and their pensions.

But the myth that coal can survive holds strong, even in bankruptcy court. Moore’s filing says that with a proper debt restructuring, the company will be able to get back on its feet, stronger than ever.


An unrelated note: If you’re interested in why I started HEATED, how it’s going so far, and my general approach to climate journalism, I talked about all those things in an interview with Inside The Newsroom earlier this week. Inside The Newsroom is a podcast and newsletter by Guardian journalist Daniel Levitt. You can check it out HERE.


HOT ACTION: De-coal your electric bill

I haven’t done one of these in a few issues, and I thought this suggestion was relevant to today’s issue. From Illinois-based reader Ryan Bird:

I’m emailing to let you know about about a utilities service I discovered (and have signed up for) last week that might be worth either relaying to your readers as something they can do to address the climate crisis, OR investigating to see if this holds up as a non-greenwashed practice. …

It’s a company called Arcadia Power. It’s free to sign up, and when you do you hand over your online login for your power bill (ComEd in Chicago for me) so they receive it instead, and from there they "find ways to lower your power bill and connect you to clean energy like wind and solar power.” Their website says they do this primarily by buying renewable energy credits on your behalf, I guess by like buying them at a lower price than the conventional, non-clean utility rate and getting ComEd to bill me for those instead?

I’m not 100% sure how this works, if it has a positive, demonstrable environmental impact, and if it could lower my power bill. … I am willing to give Arcadia a try for a few months, though, and as a young car-less renter, this seems like one of the easiest ways to make a difference via personal consumption/lifestyle …

Don’t forget password and financial security basics if doing this—you are handing over your login info and (for me) a link to a bank account to an upstart company!

I admittedly don’t know much about this either, so if you have thoughts (or other suggestions for Hot Action), email them to action@heated.world.

OK, that’s all for today—thank for reading HEATED!

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See you tomorrow!