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Robert Murray, Ohio coal baron who fought government regulations, dies at 80

A fourth-generation coal miner from southeastern Ohio, Mr. Murray had a more than six-decade career in the coal industry. He lied about his age to start working in the mines at 16, seven years after his father — also a miner — was paralyzed in an accident, and went on to start a mining company of his own, founding Murray Energy with a single mine in 1988.

While the company never rivaled publicly traded giants such as Peabody Energy, Mr. Murray grew his firm into one of the country’s leading mining operations, taking on billions of dollars in debt to scoop up competitors. Murray Energy expanded to include more than a dozen active mines around the nation and in Colombia, along with mining-equipment manufacturing facilities and truck, rail and river terminals.

Like his rivals, Mr. Murray struggled to compete with low natural gas prices and the rise of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. While coal plants provided nearly half of the country’s electricity in 2010, they accounted for about 23 percent last year. Murray Energy filed for bankruptcy in 2019, and Mr. Murray died less than a week after announcing his retirement as chairman of a successor company, American Consolidated Natural Resources.

Until recently, he had been a frequent guest and provocateur on cable television programs, where he praised coal as an essential part of American life while rebuking unions, “liberal elitists” and “environmental alarmists” who noted that carbon-dioxide emissions from coal power plants are a leading driver of climate change.

Mr. Murray used the term “so-called global warming,” rejecting the scientific consensus, and repeatedly bashed President Barack Obama’s environmental initiatives and “evil agenda,” which he blamed for strangling the industry. He filed at least a dozen lawsuits against the Obama administration, variously calling the president “an outlaw” and “the greatest enemy I’ve ever had in my life.”

His vitriolic language made him a natural ally to Trump, who campaigned for the presidency on a promise to end “the war on coal.” He vowed “to put our miners back to work,” wore a coal miner’s helmet at a campaign rally in West Virginia and, in Mr. Murray’s telling, called the coal executive shortly after the 2016 election to reiterate his support for miners.

Mr. Murray donated $300,000 to the president’s inauguration and soon presented the Trump administration with a 16-point “action plan” for rescuing the industry, at a time when dozens of coal plant closures were being announced across the country. “I’m not a patient man,” he told Bloomberg News of his proposals. “I’m going to be watching.”

He did not have to wait long. In March 2017, Mr. Murray and 10 of his miners were invited to the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, where Trump signed an executive order to unwind Obama-era coal measures and climate change regulations.

Within a year, many of Mr. Murray’s pro-coal suggestions had been adopted in some form, including proposals that the Trump administration slash the staff of the EPA and withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. A proposal from Energy Secretary Rick Perry to subsidize ailing coal and nuclear plants, which Mr. Murray had championed, was among the few pro-coal ideas that did not gain traction.

“I give President Trump and his administration credit for being bold, being passionate and being correct in addressing a lot of these issues that were on my list here,” he told the New York Times in 2018. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who obtained the “action plan” and shared it with the newspaper, called the document “an extraordinary arrogance of the fossil fuel industry.”

Mr. Murray was criticized for his company’s safety record and accused of pressuring his employees to attend political rallies or donate money to his preferred candidates. But he remained unabashed about his coal boosterism, characterizing himself as a coal miner, through and through, who was interested in maintaining jobs that supported communities from Utah to West Virginia.

“This is a human issue for me,” he told the Times in 2016, lamenting that most of the 431 miners at his Powhatan No. 6 mine would probably be laid off when it closed down later that year. “It kills me. Lives are being destroyed deliberately by some and by the ignorance of most.”

His company filed for bankruptcy three years later, although Mr. Murray — by then serving as chairman, not chief executive — had continued to make a fortune from the business. He paid himself $14 million in wages, according to a Times report, while donating to organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America and giving nearly $1 million to groups that deny the…

Read More: Robert Murray, Ohio coal baron who fought government regulations, dies at 80

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