Coal man

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

BY Kimberley A. Strassel

From the Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON -- Every good party has its wet blanket. In the case of the energy industry's merrymaking for a global warming program, the guy in the dripping bedspread is a 67-year-old, straight-talking coal-mine owner by the name of Robert E. Murray.

You won't hear many of Mr. Murray's energy-biz colleagues mention him; they tend to avoid his name, much as nephews avoid talk of their crazy uncles. GE's Jeffrey Immelt, Duke Energy's Jim Rogers, Exelon's John Rowe -- these polished titans have been basking in an intense media glow, ever since they claimed to have seen the light on global warming and gotten behind a mandatory government program to cut C02 emissions. They'd rather not have any killjoys blowing the whistle on their real motives -- which is to make a pile of cash off the taxpayers and consumers who'll fund it.

And yet here's Mr. Murray, killjoy-in-chief at the global warming lovefest. "Some elitists in our country can't, or won't, tell fact from fiction, can't understand what a draconian climate change program will do [to] the dreams of millions of working Americans and those on fixed incomes," says the chairman and CEO of Murray Energy, one of the largest private coal concerns in the country. He's incensed by his fellow energy CEOs' "shameless" goal of fattening their bottom lines at the "expense of the broader economy." So these past months he's emerged from his quiet Cleveland office and jumped on the national stage, calling out the rest of his industry's CO2 collaborationists. He's testified in front of Congress; become a regular on television and radio programs; sat for profiles by journalists; and written letters to other energy companies exhorting them to think of the broader consequences.

It seems unlikely his campaign will slow the runaway global-warming train now hurtling through Washington. But Mr. Murray is certainly making the ride less comfortable for some corporate players. "For me, global warming is a human issue, not just an environmental one," he says in his slow, gravelly way, nursing a cup of coffee at a local shop here after recent congressional testimony.

"The science of global warming is speculative. But there's nothing speculative about the damage a C02 capture program will do to this country. I know the names of many of the thousands of people -- American workers, their families -- whose lives will be destroyed by what has become a deceitful and hysterical campaign, perpetrated by fear-mongers in our society and by corporate executives intent on their own profits or competitive advantage. I can't stand by and watch."

Tough words, and unusually brash ones for a respected CEO, though Mr. Murray is uniquely situated to deliver them. Unlike other energy executives -- at industrial firms such as GE that make millions on wind turbines, or utilities such as Duke or Exelon who are making big financial bets on "clean energy" -- coal CEOs such as Mr. Murray are the bad boys on the global-warming scene, and will see zero upside in a global-warming program. While the industry has certainly made advances on the real pollution front (sulfur dioxide/nitrogen oxide), coal still accounts for the vast majority of all electricity-related C02 emissions.

The only way to really cut carbon emissions would be to severely limit the use of coal-fired power plants and manufacturing facilities, which is exactly what environmentalists have wanted for years. "We're one of the targets of this campaign," says Mr. Murray. "Putting in place a global warming program is about putting limits on the coal business and low-cost energy." The Ohio coal miner therefore has nothing to lose by speaking hard truths.

He's also well-qualified to speak them, hailing from a long line of coal miners proud of their roots and their industry. A no-nonsense guy, Mr. Murray became the family provider after his father was paralyzed in a coal-mining accident. By 16, he was mowing lawns every day after school, using a coal miner's cap with a light on the front so he could continue to work past dark. He'd set his sights on a medical career when he was unexpectedly offered a chance at a scholarship to become a mining engineer. "I'm a fourth-generation miner, but it's only by happenstance," he chuckles.

There followed 31 years at the North American Coal Corp., where he rose to CEO and then left in 1987 after a disagreement. Striking out on his own, he mortgaged his home to buy his first mine. Today, Murray Energy operates 11 coal mines in Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Utah, producing 32 million tons of coal annually ($800 million in sales) for U.S. electric utilities. He employs about 3,000, although he estimates that if you look at all the secondary jobs created to provide goods and services for miners, his company has helped create some 36,000 jobs.

Those jobs are top of Mr. Murray's list of concerns, and he's been determined to make people hear about them. At a recent speech to the New York Coal Trade Association, designed to whip some of his fellow coal industry friends into action, Mr. Murray recalled what happened in his region after the 1990 Clean Air Act, which imposed drastic reductions in coal production: "In Ohio alone, from 1990 to 2005, nearly 120 mines were shut down, costing more than 36,000 primary and secondary jobs. These impacted areas have spent years recovering, and some never will. Families broke up, many lost homes, and some were impoverished . . ." He finishes the thought by noting that a global warming program would make those prior coal cuts look like small potatoes.

These speeches and TV appearances have become more frequent -- and it's a measure of just how big an irritant he's become to global-warming politicians and their new buddies in the energy industry, that when Mr. Murray was invited to impart his wisdom to Congress at a hearing in March, Democrats tried to keep him from testifying. They later gave in, although Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee Chairman Jim Costa pointedly left the room when it was Mr. Murray's turn to testify.

Had Mr. Costa bothered to stay, he'd have heard a useful, and irrefutable, analysis of just what today's legislative proposals for a global warming program would mean to the economy, including the nation's many miners. "Some 52 percent of this country's electricity is generated from coal," Mr. Murray says. "Global warming legislation would place arbitrary limits on the use of coal, yet there's nothing to replace it at the same cost. There's nuclear, but the environmentalists killed it off and aren't about to let it come back. There's hydro, but we're using that everywhere we can already. There's natural gas, but supply and pipeline capacity is limited, and it's three times the cost of coal. Politically correct -- and subsidized 'alternative energy' is very limited in capability and also expensive.

"So what you are really doing with a global warming program is getting rid of low-cost energy," he says. The consequences? Americans have been fretting about losing jobs to places such as China or India, which already offer cheaper energy. "You hike the cost of energy here further, and you create a mass exodus of business out of this country." Especially so, given that neither of those countries is about to hamstring its own economy in order to join a Kyoto-like accord. He points out that since 1990, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 18 percent, while China's have increased by 77 percent. Mr. Murray also notes that many countries that have joined Kyoto have already failed to meet their targets.

Mr. Murray, like most honest participants in this debate, can reel off the names of the many respected scientists who still doubt that human activity is the cause of rising temperatures. But he tends to treat the scientific debate almost as a sideshow, an excuse for not talking about what comes next. "Even if the politicians believe 100% that man is causing global warming, they still have an obligation to discuss honestly just what damage they want to inflict on American jobs and workers and people on fixed incomes, in the here and now, with their programs."

This is where Mr. Murray really gets rolling, on his favorite subject of his fellow energy executives and the role they are playing in encouraging a mandatory C02 program. "There is this belief that since even some in the energy industry are now on board with a program, that it must be okay. No one is looking at these executives' real motives."

To understand those motives, you've first got to understand how a cap-and-trade plan works. The government would first place a cap on CO2 emissions. Each company would then be given an "allowance" for emissions. If the company produced less CO2 than allowed, it could sell the excess credits to others. If a company wanted to produce more CO2 than its allowance, it would have to buy credits. "The strategy for these folks now is to go to Washington, help design the program to suit their companies, and snap up all the carbon emission allowances," says Mr. Murray. "The more allowances they get, the more they'll have to sell, and the more money they'll make. ... This has nothing to do with creating 'regulatory certainty,' which is how they like to sell their actions. This has to do with creating money, for their companies, off the back of an economy that will be paying more for its energy."

Mr. Murray reserves special criticism for those companies that have joined the high-profile U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition pushing for mandatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions. "Some of them see profits -- such as Caterpillar, General Electric, DuPont, Alcoa, General Motors, British Petroleum, Shell Oil, ConocoPhillips, Entergy -- and all are just trying to look 'green.' But none of it is good for America."

He says that if these companies think the good times will last, they've been smoking their own products. "These CEOs were picked because they know how to work the political scene within their companies and are doing the same with the public on this issue. They are focused on short-term profits, and maybe it's true that a cap-and-trade program will help them with their next earnings statement. What they won't acknowledge is that, once a cap-and-trade program is in effect, the politicians will want to keep lowering, lowering, lowering the cap. That means fewer and fewer allowances. In the long term, this will starve American energy -- though that isn't something they are telling their shareholders."

Mr. Murray does business with many of these companies, and in February he sent strongly worded letters to their executives, pointing out the hazard of mandatory CO2 reductions to the nation. His letter to Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers ended, "You are promoting the wrong policies for your company, for mine and my employees, and for the American people ... Your company may well have some short-term benefits, but slowing down our economy -- and with it the global economy -- over the long term will not help anybody."

Mr. Rogers responded with a letter that said while he respected Mr. Murray's views, he couldn't help. "Legislation is coming. We can help shape it, or we can stand on the sidelines and let others do it," he wrote. It seems some have already given up on this battle.

Kimberley A. Strassel is a Washington-based member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: