What’s next for ‘great patriot’ Bob Murray’s sway?

By Timothy Cama | 10/30/2019 07:17 AM EDT

Murray Energy Corp. founder Bob Murray has been a prolific Republican donor.

Murray Energy Corp. founder Bob Murray has been a prolific Republican donor. Kelsey Brugger/E&E News

The departure of close President Trump ally Bob Murray as CEO of the nation’s largest privately held coal company could dampen his famously outspoken political advocacy and campaign spending to boost the coal industry.

Murray has become an internationally recognized face of the coal industry, through his close ties with Trump, his millions of dollars in spending to support the president as well as other Republicans, and his litigation and advocacy for policies he believes would help coal amid headwinds such as cheap natural gas and regulations.

But alongside Murray Energy Corp.’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing yesterday, Murray said he’d step aside as CEO, though remain chairman.

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The shift might change how Murray, 79, doles out campaign contributions and vocally pushes for pro-coal policies, activities that in the past have included suing the Obama administration numerous times as well as loudly denouncing President Obama, including calling for his criminal prosecution for his policies that hurt coal.

Murray Energy declined to answer E&E News’ questions about the future of donations from either Murray or the company, as well as plans for advocacy. Robert Moore, Murray’s nephew and Murray Energy’s current chief operating officer and chief financial officer, will take over as CEO.

Murray has given more than $280,000 to the Trump Victory joint fundraising committee between Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee, $300,000 to Trump’s inauguration, and $1 million to the pro-Trump super political action committee America First Action.

He has also hosted big-dollar fundraising events and given thousands of dollars to Republican candidates. His employees have also donated significant money to Trump.

"It is critical to our families that President Trump be re-elected," Murray wrote in an invitation to a July fundraiser he organized for Trump in West Virginia, which was obtained by Documented, an activist watchdog group.

Murray’s influence in the Trump administration is evident in various areas. Trump has met with him numerous times, and Murray gave his administration a multi-point "action plan" when he took office with several environmental and labor policy rollbacks he wanted to be carried out.

Murray was present at EPA in March 2017 when Trump signed an executive order to start the process of rolling back the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, one of Murray’s main wishes.

Andrew Wheeler, who used to be a lobbyist for Murray Energy and other energy companies, is now head of EPA for Trump.

The executive also lobbied for the administration to ensure that coal-fired power plants get more money for the resilience they contribute to the electric grid — an idea Trump supports but that has not been implemented.

Murray told NPR yesterday he still wants federal help for coal power plants.

"The government should be stepping in and keeping coal-fired generation in existence. The government’s done nothing," he said.

"We’re going to have a crisis of resiliency and reliability in the power grid," he said. "People are going to freeze in the dark."

‘Access buying’

Robert Maguire, research director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, said Murray hasn’t spent as much as some of the biggest players in election politics, but his impact has been very notable.

"He is an illustrative example of how access-buying works," Maguire said.

Murray’s history has been a "case study" in how money in politics works, he added. "It buys you access to powerful people and face time that you can use to push your pet projects," he said.

The future of Murray’s donations depends on whether he spent money because of his beliefs or because of business, Maguire said.

"The big part of that question is, how closely were his political beliefs — and his passionate pro-Trump beliefs in particular — tied to the company he was running?" he said.

Patrick McGinley, an environmental law professor at West Virginia University, said Murray Energy’s bankruptcy filing shows the folly of Murray’s political advocacy and spending.

"Bob Murray has spent the last 10 years bashing President Obama and mine safety and environmental regulation as a threat to the coal industry," he said. "In fact, what happened was free-market capitalism took over, and shale gas and renewables like wind and solar are cheaper."

Lawmakers react

Murray’s allies in Congress applauded him and his pro-coal advocacy.

"Bob Murray is a great patriot," said Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.). "Bob Murray loves this country, he loves the workers that work for him. He cares so much about the people. I know this is a tough day for him personally because it’s a tough day for the people who work for Murray. It’s a big family."

Barr said he’s less worried about whether Murray will cease his advocacy and spending than he is about "the coal miners and their families."

Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) predicted that Murray Energy, no matter who is leading it, will keep forcefully pushing pro-coal policies.

"I think Murray Energy will be as outspoken an advocate for the coal industry as they have been," said Johnson, who declined to talk about Murray before speaking with him.

Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House’s second-highest-ranking Democrat, told reporters yesterday that the news of the bankruptcy was puzzling, given the Trump administration’s repeated promises to boost the coal industry.

"I’m not going to go to where I’m thinking about, in terms of, why in heaven’s name would a company that’s selling coal go bankrupt under this administration?"

Reporter Kellie Lunney contributed.