In March 2017, Robert Murray, a major Trump donor and president of Murray Energy Corporation, a U.S. coal company, presented President Donald Trump’s administration with an action plan that Murray argued would “help in getting America’s coal miners back to work.” Now fully revealed by The New York Times, the plan’s proposals outline a deregulatory agenda that is less focused on job creation than it is on eliminating safeguards for miners and public health and effective oversight of energy markets. Murray’s to-do list ranges from stacking nominees for independent oversight agencies to wiping environmental and worker protections off the books and skewing energy markets in favor of his coal company.
One year into President Trump’s time in office, Murray’s action plan and subsequent calls for a study of the electric grid and a bailout for coal power plants have become central tenets of the administration’s energy policy. These events and the influence Murray has wielded should alert coal miners, their communities, and environmentalists alike to the likelihood of increased risks to their safety, health, and prosperity. This column squares Murray’s plan with reality and contextualizes his apparent disregard for free markets, worker safety, and public health.
Murray wants regulators, judges, and markets skewed in his favor
Murray’s action plan proposed clearing the field of competitors by eliminating tax credits for wind and solar and replacing Obama administration appointees at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which oversees U.S. energy markets; the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which safeguard his employees; and even the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently declined to consider a case filed by Murray. By the end of 2017, President Trump’s nominees had taken office in each of these bodies; one of these nominees, David Zatezalo, pursued the leadership position at the MSHA at Murray’s suggestion. Yet, FERC’s recent decision to reject Secretary of Energy Rick Perry’s proposal to bail out coal power plants illustrates the need to guard against political influence over independent federal regulatory agencies.
Beginning in March 2017, Murray proposed that Secretary Perry’s department study the contribution of coal power plants to the U.S. electric grid’s resilience. The resulting study disputed Murray’s claims that coal generation provides essential services to the electricity grid. Rather, the study indicated that flat electricity demand and low-cost natural gas have driven market conditions leading to coal power plant retirements.
Aligning with Murray and in defiance of his own agency’s findings, Secretary Perry requested that FERC issue a rule subsidizing coal power plants, including many of Murray’s biggest coal customers. Under tremendous pressure from the rule’s coal industry proponents and clean energy and natural gas opponents on both sides of the issue, FERC commissioners adhered to their independence and mission, siding in favor of competitive electricity markets in which coal generation has become less competitive versus clean energy and natural gas resources. Murray later called the commissioners “inadequate bureaucrats.” The episode reveals the crucial role played by independent federal regulatory agencies like FERC in overseeing highly technical and high-dollar markets like the U.S. electricity markets. Without that independence, Murray’s desire for influence might have yielded much more expensive electricity bills for families and businesses.
Murray’s attacks on coal miner safety and worker rights
By directly attacking the MSHA as “bloated and politicalized (sic)” and its rules as “arbitrary” and “punitive,” Murray’s action plan showcases his disregard for miner safety and health. Such commentary is not only dangerous, but also incorrect. The MSHA’s budget, for example, is hardly bloated. It has seen only a minimal 7 percent increase over the last decade, and in 2016, the agency reorganized its districts, closing offices and reducing inspections. Furthermore, Murray has a history of unfair labor practices and safety violations at his mines, including one settlement for 1,753 violations. With this kind of reckless background, it’s no wonder that Murray would oppose federal efforts to hold companies accountable for unsafe working conditions at their mines.
By calling for the elimination of the pattern of violations and coal dust rules, Murray’s action plan raises questions about why safety needs to be sacrificed to increase employment. Following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 miners in West Virginia in 2010, the MSHA strengthened the pattern of violations rule. The new language requires mine operators to address dangerous conditions or face penalties when significant and substantial violations reoccur at their mines. In suing the MSHA in 2014, Murray claimed the agency overstepped its authority—despite the MSHA not having fully exercised its authority for 30 years. Murray is also on record opposing the coal dust rule, which was finalized in 2014 to protect miners from black lung disease by lowering the acceptable level of dust in mines and requiring the use of continuous personal dust monitors (CPDM) in underground production areas, achieving $3.4 billion in benefits. Through August 2016, MSHA monitoring showed that mine operators had already purchased CPDM and were complying with the new standard in more than 99 percent of samples. Yet Murray not only proposed the rule’s revision in his action plan but applauded the Trump administration’s announcement of its reconsideration.
While Murray’s company is still fighting the MSHA in court, his own influence on President Trump has provided an easier avenue to undermine the rules he opposes. His litigation strategy and his eagerness to weaken mine safety rules point to disregard for miners and their safety and health. Nonetheless, the Trump administration has announced a review of the coal dust rule and moved to settle Murray’s lawsuit regarding the pattern of violations rule.
Climate denial and direct attacks on clean air and climate protections
In March 2017, less than a month after receiving Murray’s action plan, President Trump satisfied Murray’s top request and signed an executive order directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review the Clean Power Plan, a rule that would have delivered up to $45 billion in net benefits by reducing carbon emissions and other air pollutants from power plants. The administration has since proposed to repeal the rule. Advised by both EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Murray, President Trump also announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement in June 2017. Murray’s action plan falsely claims the Paris Agreement obligates funding and is an “illegal treaty.” Not only does the Paris agreement create a springboard for sustained climate action that will benefit the environment, it does so legally and without imposing any specific financial obligation on the United States. If anything, by becoming the only country to oppose the pact, the United States further isolates itself from efforts to achieve low-carbon growth and protect those who are vulnerable from the worst impacts of climate change.
The Trump administration has been slower to implement other Murray requests, likely due to legal constraints. The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA regulate pollutants they determine to endanger public health and welfare; EPA and courts have repeatedly found that greenhouse gases fall under this category. Murray would like the Trump administration’s EPA to overturn this so-called endangerment finding, a tall order both scientifically and legally. Even the Trump administration recently approved the release of a report confirming what the global scientific community already knows: Climate change is a growing threat, human activities are the dominant cause, and there is no convincing alternative explanation. Administrator Pruitt, however, has announced plans to develop a “red team, blue team” activity to debate climate science. This could exaggerate scientific uncertainty where there is little and offer climate deniers, such as the Heartland Institute, a platform from which to spread misinformation.
Two EPA rules Murray identifies for elimination include new ozone standards that will yield billions of dollars in benefits, particularly for children’s health, and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which generate $3 to $9 in health benefits for every dollar spent. Trump’s EPA has dragged its feet implementing new ozone standards and delayed litigation over MATS, but has not yet revoked or reconsidered either rule. Echoing Murray’s call to cut EPA staff in half, EPA set aside $12 million to pay employees to retire early or quit, and both the Trump budget and the GOP Senate majority’s recent spending bill would reduce funding for EPA’s enforcement, compliance, and clean air programs. Murray’s dangerous plans have clearly set the administration’s agenda.
If fully implemented, Murray’s proposals will undermine safety and public health
With recent Energy Information Administration projections pointing to a slowdown in domestic coal production driven by decreased export demand and ongoing low natural gas prices, Murray’s stated goal of increasing coal mining jobs likely may falter. Yet, even as coal becomes less competitive and puts more jobs at risk, Murray’s deregulatory legacy remains intact through the actions of the Trump administration. Such close ties between industry and the executive branch are clearly dangerous. Should these ties persist, the vital independence of federal regulatory agencies and the courts, competitive energy markets, protections for clean air, and necessary safeguards for coal miners themselves may be lost.
Luke H. Bassett is the associate director of Domestic Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. Lia Cattaneo is a research associate for Energy and Environment Policy at American Progress.