Bob Murray Helped Shape Trump’s Energy Policies. Now, His Coal Company Is Facing Bankruptcy.

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Bob Murray, pictured in an interview from the 2017 FRONTLINE documentary "War on the EPA."

Bob Murray, pictured in an interview from the 2017 FRONTLINE documentary "War on the EPA."

October 29, 2019

The largest privately owned coal company in the U.S., whose founder Bob Murray played an outsize role in shaping President Donald Trump’s fossil fuel policies and heralded his election as “a wonderful victory,” has entered bankruptcy.

Murray Energy Holdings Co.’s Chapter 11 filing is the latest signal that the coal industry’s fortunes have continued to decline, despite President Trump’s vow on the campaign trail and then in office to end what he called the “war on coal” and revive the struggling sector.

Although a bankruptcy filing is not an easy decision, it became necessary to access liquidity and best position Murray Energy and its affiliates for the future of our employees and customers and our long term success,” Murray said in an announcement about the restructuring, under which he will no longer serve as the company’s CEO.

Murray’s early influence on energy and environmental policy within the Trump administration was chronicled as part of the 2017 FRONTLINE documentary, War on the EPA.

At the time, the advocate for de-regulation believed Trump’s election had been a turning point for his industry: “It was eight years of pure hell under the Democrat party and Obama,” he told FRONTLINE  “But we won! It’s a wonderful victory.”

The film traced how, during the Obama administration, Murray allied with Republican attorneys general, including Oklahoma’s Scott Pruitt, to fight Obama’s signature effort in the fight against climate change, the Clean Power Plan, arguing that it was an example of federal overreach that would take away jobs and do little for the environment. Then, the documentary explored how in 2016, Murray forged another political alliance with a candidate who was highly receptive to that message.

I called Donald Trump’s office at Trump Tower in New York. And when I walked into his office, he was alone,” Murray told FRONTLINE of the then-candidate. “We talked for 50 minutes — I can talk, he can talk — about coal, about the connection between coal miners’ jobs, coal miners’ families. I was so impressed with him.”

As the film reported, Trump began talking more about coal on the campaign trail, and soon he was holding rallies in West Virginia’s coal country. When Trump took office, Murray’s relationship with him continued. “I gave Mr. Trump what I called an action plan very early,” Murray told FRONTLINE. “It’s about three-and-a-half pages and — of what he needed to do in his administration.”

At the top of that list was rolling back the Clean Power Plan. As this scene from War on the EPA recounts, Murray was in the room at the Environmental Protection Agency — then led by Trump appointee Scott Pruitt — when the president took his first major step towards achieving that goal:

Under Pruitt (who resigned in 2018) and Trump, the EPA would go on to roll back dozens of environmental regulations, and take other steps aimed at boosting the coal industry. But as the news of Murray Energy’s bankruptcy filing underscores, the sector continues to falter. Earlier this month, the Energy Information Administration said that both coal production and demand are continuing to decline.

For more on Murray’s role in shaping President Trump’s approach to the fossil fuel industry and environmental policy, and on how critics of the EPA came to play leading roles within the agency, watch War on the EPA in full:


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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