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Economy

Coal Producer Murray Energy Files for Bankruptcy

photo of smoke stacks
JAMES KELLEY
/
SHUTTERSTOCK
Ohio Coal Association President Mike Cope said the coal industry isn't dead, but the energy industry is changing.

Murray Energy, one of the nation's largest producers of coal, has filed for bankruptcy. The Ohio-based coal mining company also announced that its high-profile CEO, Bob Murray, will be replaced.

Murray Energy, based in St. Clairsville, has filed for Chapter 11 in bankruptcy court and is looking to restructure under a different name, Murray NewCo. Under that new entity, Bob Murray will no longer be CEO or president but he will continue to hold the title of board chairman.

Murray has been an outspoken defender of coal in national media outlets, while making headlines for his criticism of former President Barack Obama. He grew a reputation for blasting President Obama for what he called a "war on coal."

"And these one-sided environmentalists that are destroying jobs in this state, and have destroyed them."

Murray has also been a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump.

In October 2017, Murray talked about Trump's reversal of the carbon cutting Clean Power Plan during an appearance on a Cleveland radio program. He said a reliance on renewable energy was killing the coal industry.

"This environmental propaganda has eliminated the reliability of electricity in the electric power grid. You can't store the sun at a power plant, you can't store the wind, you can't even store natural gas, it comes in a pipe. The only thing that you can store as the loads in the power plant go up and down over 24 hours or over the seasons is either nuclear power, or coal."

Last year, Murray Energy was the fourth largest producer of coal in the country mining more than 46 million tons of coal.

Coal production as a whole has been declining for years. According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal production has seen a 30% drop since 2010. Meanwhile, coal-powered energy is expected to dip below 18% of the total power generation in the country by 2020.

Mike Cope, president of the Ohio Coal Association, said coal plants are closing prematurely and the market is currently favoring natural gas which is selling at a very low price. Cope said this creates a scenario with temporary gains but long-term consequences.

"You're going to be making short-term decisions that four or five years from now will come back to really bite you hard and then you won't have any options."

Cope said state and federal lawmakers must jump in to create regulations that could stop plants from closing or prevent coal-powered generation from dropping below a certain percentage.

Cope sees the bankruptcy filing by Murray Energy as a way to restructure, and while it does put the future of those coal mines in flux, he said they're not yet closing.

But Neil Waggoner with the "Beyond Coal" Campaign of Sierra Club's Ohio Chapter sees it differently. "The coal mining industry has no cards left to play." He said Murray is just the latest in several coal companies going into bankruptcy and it's a sign that the state should be looking at investing more into renewable energy.

Waggoner adds that, instead of finding ways to keep the coal business going, lawmakers should create provisions that protect coal miners who lose their jobs.

"Putting into effect plans to invest in those communities to help create a diverse and robust economy and planning for a future that's beyond coal and not just trying to bail out coal plants and delay the inevitable and further put these communities behind."

Looming in the wake of the Murray bankruptcy announcement is the potential coal miner pension crisis. This is an issue both of Ohio's U.S. Senators, Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, have been working on in Congress.

Many pension plans are in danger of insolvency. About 60,000 retired union workers in Ohio are at risk of losing their pensions.

Brown said in a written statement that the Murray bankruptcy announcement is sad news for Ohio mineworkers and that Murray Energy is the last major company contributing to one of the pension plans. He said the filing intensifies the need to come up with a bipartisan solution.