DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's turn now to the president's push to save coal. Behind that push, you will find Bob Murray. He heads Murray Energy, the country's largest privately owned coal mining company. He's been a major supporter and financial backer of the president. But now he's the latest to reckon with this industry's decline and declare bankruptcy. NPR's Jeff Brady has this profile.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Walking into Bob Murray's corner office in St. Clairesville, Ohio, feels like stepping back in time.
UNIDENTIFIED MURRAY ENERGY EMPLOYEE: Sir, Mr. Brady's here.
BRADY: Murray wears a dark suit jacket with a silk handkerchief poking out of the pocket. He sits behind a large dark wood desk.
BOB MURRAY: ...Murray.
BRADY: Nice to meet you in person.
MURRAY: I'll stand up.
BRADY: (Laughter) Oh.
Murray turns 80 years old in January and is less steady on his feet than he used to be. He suffers from a lung disease but says it's not related to years of working underground in coal mines.
(SOUNDBITE OF OXYGEN HISSING)
BRADY: There's a constant hissing sound in his office. That's the oxygen Murray needs to breathe. He says three hospitals have rejected him for a lung transplant because of a history of strokes.
MURRAY: Not only am I fighting for my own life but I'm fighting for your life of my employees and my company.
BRADY: Murray's recent bankruptcy comes after a long career. He began as a miner then built his own company, eventually with 7,000 employees. Natalie Biggs is a coal industry analyst with Wood Mackenzie.
NATALIE BIGGS: So a lot of coal companies had undergone bankruptcy in around 2015, 2016. And Murray's was one of the ones that actually kind of made it through that period and was able to purchase a lot of assets off the back of that sort of bankruptcy boom.
BRADY: Bigg says Murray Energy took on debt as the coal market continued to decline. In bankruptcy, Murray says, he'll lose ownership of his company. Some of his unionized workers may lose health care and pension benefits. And the filing is a political loss for President Trump.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have ended the war on American energy, and we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal.
BRADY: Bob Murray has had the Trump administration's ear. He drafted an action plan to help coal then delivered it to Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Photos from the meeting show the two men hugging. While Trump rolled back some environmental regulations on Murray's list, the administration was not able to deliver the subsidies for coal plants that Murray wanted.
He argues that coal, with fuel stored onsite, is more reliable than natural gas that's piped in and renewable energy that depends on the sun and wind. Still, coal is losing market share to these cheaper and cleaner ways of generating electricity. Murray argues that makes the electric grid less reliable.
MURRAY: But all of a sudden, one of these days, you're going to be hearing about - on NPR - about this power grid failure. And people are going to become alarmed. And all of a sudden, they're going to forget this nonsense called climate change.
BRADY: Murray predicts that will come during a winter storm and that people will freeze to death.
MARY ANNE HITT: Frankly, this is just a scare tactic.
BRADY: Mary Anne Hitt with the Sierra Club says there are smart people running the country's power grids. They take into account every coal plant closing and make sure the grid remains reliable.
HITT: Empty promises about bailing out coal plants or reviving the fortunes of the coal industry are just distracting our country from the real work we need to be doing.
BRADY: Hitt says that is moving the country away from coal and toward cleaner renewable energy.
Murray's climate denial and coal boosterism are evidence of a key element of his personality. Once he's concluded he's right about something, Murray doesn't give in. Here's another example of that. Twelve years ago, Murray Energy made news for a tragic mine collapse in Utah that trapped six workers.
MURRAY: Worst thing of my life. I take it, obviously, to my grave.
BRADY: The men were never located. And 10 days later, three rescuers died as another section of the mine collapsed. A government report concluded there were flaws in the mine design. Murray's company was fined more than a million dollars for safety violations. Yet even today, Murray denies responsibility.
MURRAY: A lot of blame being pointed. In the end, I was correct. It was an earthquake.
BRADY: Seismologists at the University of Utah say that's just not true. The earthquake was the result of the mine collapsing.
Even now, as he struggles for breath just walking across the room, Murray is still pushing for what he believes. As his company was preparing for bankruptcy, Murray delivered a speech in West Virginia, calling on federal regulators to subsidize coal and keep his industry alive.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, St. Clairesville, Ohio.
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