A Coal Executive’s “Action Plan” For Trump Is Made Public

January 10, 2018
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by Nicole Einbinder Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Robert Murray, founder and chairman of Murray Energy Corp., was an early supporter of Donald Trump's campaign for president. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

As early as his 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump has been a vocal advocate for the coal industry. As a candidate and now as president, he’s promised to slash regulations he says cost miners their jobs, and forged political alliances with leaders across the industry.

Among those leaders is Robert E. Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corp., the country’s largest coal mining company. During the election, Murray was an ardent supporter of Trump, throwing an invitation-only fundraiser for him in West Virginia, and donating $300,000 to his inauguration.

“It was eight years of pure hell under the Democrat Party and Obama,” Murray told FRONTLINE in our 2017 documentary War on the EPA. “But we won! It’s a wonderful victory!”

In his interview with FRONTLINE, Murray boasted of an “action plan” he says he provided the president in the early days of his administration. The three-and-half-page long wish list detailed, “what he needed to do in his administration,” Murray said, before adding that the president had already, “wiped out page one.”

Until now, the full memo had not been made public. But that changed on Tuesday, when a copy of the document provided by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) was published by The New York Times.

The March 1, 2017 memo, signed by Murray and addressed to Vice President Mike Pence, lists 14 requests, including the elimination of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan; a United States withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement; and at least a 50 percent cut to the staff at the Environmental Protection Agency. Other major overhauls include “a withdrawal and suspension” of the endangerment finding, a landmark EPA determination requiring the agency to regulate carbon emissions, and eliminating a federal tax credit for windmills and solar panels.

“Enclosed is an Action Plan for the Administration of President Donald J. Trump, which will help in getting America’s coal miners back to work,” Murray writes in the memo. “We are available to assist you and your Administration in any way that you request.”

Murray has been an outspoken critic of climate change science. “We don’t have a climate change problem,” he told FRONTLINE. “It is not real and not scientifically based. It’s a theology. It’s politics. And it’s an agenda.”

Less than a year into his presidency, Trump has made undoing his predecessor’s environmental legacy a central part of his agenda. Under Trump, the EPA has moved to delay or roll back more than two dozen environmental regulations — moves that in multiple instances have overlapped with items listed in the Murray memo.

For example, during a March ceremony attended by Murray at EPA headquarters in Washington, President Trump signed an executive order instructing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to begin the process of dismantling the Clean Power Plan. Finalized by the Obama administration in 2015, the plan was designed to cut the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030.

“Mr. Trump, he acknowledged me in the audience,” Murray told FRONTLINE about the ceremony. “And if you look at the press releases on it, the back of my bald head is in the pictures.”

This past fall, Pruitt took his first formal step toward repealing the plan, but gave little indication as to how the EPA would meet its obligations to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

That action came four months after President Trump announced that the U.S. would break from the Paris Climate Accord, signed by 195 nations to address rising global temperatures.

Despite these early victories, Murray faced a setback this week when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected a proposal by the Trump administration that would have provided federal subsidies to coal and nuclear power plants.

In his memo to the Trump administration, Murray took aim at the commission, saying its members should be replaced and arguing that their actions “have destroyed the reliability of America’s electric power grid.”

This summer, the administration nominated four new members to the panel, giving Republicans control of all but one seat on the five-person commission. Nonetheless, Murray criticized the commission on Tuesday following its ruling on the administration’s energy plan.

“While FERC commissioners sit on their hands and refuse to take the action directed by Energy Secretary Rick Perry and President Donald Trump, the decommissioning of more coal-fired and nuclear plants could result, further jeopardizing the reliability, resiliency and security of America’s electric power grids,” Murray said in a statement to The Washington Post. “If it were not for the electricity generated by our nation’s coal-fired and nuclear power plants, we would be experiencing massive brownouts and blackouts in this country.”

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