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Trump stacking roster with coal players after promising to revive sector

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Essential Energy Insights - September 17, 2020

Essential Energy Insights September 2020

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Trump stacking roster with coal players after promising to revive sector

This is part one of a two-part series examining how the Trump administration has worked to fulfill his campaign promise to revive the U.S. coal industry. This installment looks at the industry-friendly appointments to key administration posts, while part two focuses on pro-coal policies that have been enacted.

As President Donald Trump has worked a playbook for fulfilling a campaign promise to bring back coal, he has stocked his administration with a roster of players familiar with the industry.

When the CEO of Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. Robert Murray, began publicly supporting Trump, he assured many in the industry the candidate was the right choice. He noted that while Trump might have been overpromising his ability to bring back coal jobs and production, the two held a meeting and Murray was convinced he would be an effective advocate for the industry.

"He'll surround himself with good people," Murray said in May 2016, months before Trump would win the presidency. "That's a big takeaway that I had. He sought me out and he's looking for advice wherever he can get it."

Since then, Trump has stocked his Cabinet with advisers familiar with and friendly to the coal sector. The most recent is the nominee for the second-highest position at the U.S. EPA: Andrew Wheeler, a lobbyist with multiple clients including Murray Energy who has long advocated for the industry.

"You can't have reliable electricity, affordable, reliable electricity, without baseload generation," Wheeler said at an industry conference in 2016. While the industry cheered the nomination, the Sierra Club called it "absolutely horrifying."

"Wheeler is unfit for the job as Deputy EPA Administrator, given his obvious conflicts of interest working for the coal industry," said Sierra Club's legislative director, Melinda Pierce. "Senators shouldn't get fooled — Scott Pruitt has seized the EPA and is trying to install coal lobbyists in key positions."

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Trump's EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, was a lead fighter against the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan in his capacity as attorney general of Oklahoma. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is the founder of an Appalachian coal company later sold to Arch Coal Inc. Trump's pick to lead the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is coal executive David Zatezalo, the former CEO of Rhino Resource Partners LP, who faced questions about the company's safety record at a recent hearing.

Other top members of his Cabinet have a more tangential connection to coal. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, wife of staunchly pro-coal Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., resigned from a position with Bloomberg Philanthropies because it supported the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta once represented a Murray Energy subsidiary in a union labor dispute.

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have both taken on major policy initiatives to support the coal industry since taking office. Zinke, Perry and Pruitt also took public tours of coal-fired power plants and coal mines in the first few months of being in office. At the events, the officials touted and promoted the future of coal.

"The men and women that you saw out there, whose jobs are directly connected to this plant — don't ever forget them," Perry said after a tour of a West Virginia coal-fired power plant. "That's what President Trump was talking about when he was discussing the coal and getting the coal industry back."

During a visit to a Westmoreland Coal Co. mine with Zinke, Vice President Mike Pence declared the Obama "war on coal" is over, a claim he would also make in West Virginia. After Pruitt visited the CNX Coal Resources LP mining complex in Pennsylvania, its CEO Jimmy Brock said such visits will "help change the narrative on future regulations."

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On July 31, Zinke issued a press release from Interior applauding initial construction of Ramaco Resources Inc.'s Berwind mine on the border of Virginia and West Virginia.

"Under President Trump's leadership, the Department of the Interior is dedicated to being a good partner with local communities," Zinke said in a statement. "This administration is dedicated to streamlining permitting and approval processes, and empowering local employees to get work done on the front lines. The Berwind Mine is the first of many projects that demonstrate the Trump administration's commitment to coal country and to good government."

The same agency later suspended a study on the health impacts of mountaintop removal.

According to a schedule obtained by The Washington Post, Acosta, Ross and Perry all attended a recent National Mining Association board of directors meeting. The report said Zinke was scheduled to join them, but had travel obligations. Travel records obtained by the press show Pruitt gave a speech to the National Mining Association earlier in the year.

Major coal connections also extend down into lower-level positions. Christian Palich, former president of the Ohio Coal Association, was appointed to a role as deputy associate administrator in the EPA.

Steve Milloy, former director of external policy and strategy for Murray Energy, worked on the EPA transition team. His book "Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA" is about a nearly three decades-long battle against what he called "crappy science" used by the EPA.

A report in Politico said senior administration officials were concerned Trump's former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, pressed the Trump administration to help stop the retirement of coal plants on behalf of Murray Energy and FirstEnergy Corp.

Speaking at a coal industry event May 4, EPA Senior Policy Adviser Mandy Gunasekara told the coal sector she was there to "make sure what we're doing in D.C. is beneficial for you."

"If it's not working, I want to hear about it so that we can work it out," Gunasekara said.

There have also been a few hiccups.

Pruitt walked back claims that coal mining jobs were up by 50,000 under Trump when it was pointed out that those figures were inaccurate. Gary Cohn, director of Trump's National Economic Council, told reporters coal "doesn't even make that much sense anymore" compared to natural gas.

When Trump proposed his budget, it revealed cuts to energy research, including clean coal programs. The revelation caused a stir at a coal industry event that was touting such technologies.

Parts of the industry also were briefly concerned when a Canadian official proposed a ban on coal exports due to Trump's threats to impose tariffs on lumber coming from Canada.