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Throughout his time in office, President Trump has tried to help the coal industry. He's rolled back environmental regulations. He's pushed for subsidies. And yet, coal-fired power plants continue to close. Today's casualty - a major coal company run by one of Trump's biggest supporters. NPR's Jeff Brady reports on the bankruptcy of Murray Energy.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: In the Murray Energy lobby in St. Clairsville, Ohio, there's a photo of founder Bob Murray with President Trump, giving two thumbs up. And in Murray's big corner office, there's a replica of Air Force Two, signed on the wing by Vice President Mike Pence. There's also a constant hissing sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF OXYGEN TANK HISSING)
BRADY: At 79 years old, Bob Murray who suffers from a lung condition that requires him to be on oxygen. He says it's not related to his business.
BOB MURRAY: They've checked for that. And it's not - has anything to do with working in the coal mines, which I did for 17 years underground every day.
BRADY: Murray built his business over decades and now says it's the largest underground coal-mining firm in the country. He accomplished that by buying other coal companies. Now a combination of large debts and a declining coal market has forced him into bankruptcy.
MURRAY: My goal is to keep the company together - keep it together for my employees.
BRADY: As part of Murray's agreement with lenders, his nephew, Robert Moore, will become president and CEO. Murray will remain as chairman. Despite President Trump's campaign promise to help the coal business, dozens of coal power plants have shut down since he was elected. Murray doesn't blame Trump for his company's bankruptcy. He says the administration has been helpful in rolling back environmental regulations. Murray specifically asked for most of them, including replacing President Obama's Clean Power Plan and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. But Murray says the coal industry needs even more help.
MURRAY: The government should be stepping in and keeping coal-fired generation in existence, and the government's done nothing.
BRADY: Murray wants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission - or FERC - to subsidize struggling coal plants. He says coal, with its fuel stored on site, is more reliable than natural gas that has to be piped in and renewable energy that only generates when the sun is shining and the wind blows. So far, regulators and grid operators have not been persuaded.
MURRAY: We're going to have a crisis of resiliency and reliability in a power grid. People are going to freeze in the dark.
BRADY: That is a prediction Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club rejects.
MARY ANNE HITT: Frankly, this is just a scare tactic for those who want to try to take our country backwards into a 20th century energy economy.
BRADY: Hitt says now the world needs renewable energy that doesn't contribute to climate change. She says U.S. power grids are managed by knowledgeable engineers focused on keeping electricity flowing.
HITT: Every time a coal plant is proposed for retirement, their job is to make sure that as that coal plant retires, that our lights will stay on and there won't be any threat to the reliability of our electricity.
BRADY: Coal miners represented by the United Mine Workers of America, though, likely will suffer because of this bankruptcy. Industry analyst Natalie Biggs, with Wood Mackenzie, says Murray was one of the last remaining companies contributing to the union's pension fund.
NATALIE BIGGS: You know, without Murray Energy, a lot of the retired coal miners are going to, you know, find themselves potentially in a difficult situation when it comes to the pensions.
BRADY: The union is asking Congress for help. Meantime, U.S. coal consumption has fallen to its lowest level in 40 years, as more utilities and states commit to energy with lower or no greenhouse gas emissions.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, St. Clairsville, Ohio.
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