Amid a sharp decline in coal jobs, President Donald Trump on Monday pushed for a federal entity to keep open a coal fired power plant supplied by Murray Energy, a company with strong ties to the administration including Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler.
“Coal is an important part of our electricity generation mix and [the Tennessee Valley Authority] should give serious consideration to all factors before voting to close viable power plants, like Paradise #3 in Kentucky!” Trump wrote in a Feb. 11 tweet.
The TVA is a federally-owned generator that doesn’t receive taxpayer money and is funded through electricity sales instead. Paradise Unit 3, which is almost 50 years old, has been deemed too expensive to continue operating, and the TVA board is set to vote as early as Thursday on whether to shutter the coal plant.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) has also called for the plant to remain open, as has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Paradise 3’s fate has been cloudy for some time. In 2017, TVA retired two other coal plants near the former town of Paradise, Kentucky in compliance with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule, an Obama-era anti-pollution effort that the EPA is currently trying to roll back.
High costs coupled with low efficiency at Paradise 3 have combined to slowly doom the coal plant. An environmental assessment released this month meanwhile found that Paradise 3’s closure would have minimal impact on the environment.
Throughout his presidency, however, Trump, has pushed hard to revive the dying coal industry, even as jobs decline and plants continue closing en masse.
But Paradise 3 also has the distinction of relying on coal predominately from a subsidiary of Murray Energy, the largest coal mining company in the United States. That company’s chief executive, Robert Murray, is a top supporter of the president’s, who has pushed repeatedly for the bailout of coal and nuclear plants that Trump has encouraged. Murray notably gave $1 million to a pro-Trump political action committee in 2018.
Murray Energy is also the former client of Wheeler, who worked for the company as a lobbyist, a job he held for years prior to his time at the EPA. Wheeler’s former coal lobbying is likely to be further scrutinized as he appears set to sail through his confirmation to formally lead an agency tasked with safeguarding the environment and enforcing regulations.
Before he joined Trump’s EPA, Wheeler worked for Murray as part of his role with the firm Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting.
In 2017 alone, Murray paid Wheeler’s firm $300,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Wheeler was a lobbyist during the time period when Murray pushed the Department of Energy to bail out coal and nuclear plants in 2017. During that time, the coal giant also provided the White House with a “wishlist” for the administration, including exiting the Paris climate accord. Wheeler has said he only glanced at the Murray Action Plan and did not look closely at it.
But those days of actively lobbying may be momentarily done for Murray. After Trump announced his plans to nominate Wheeler to permanently fill the seat vacated by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the coal company terminated its relationship with Faegre Baker Daniels at the end of 2018.
While speculation as to the reasons behind that decision have ranged, a number of experts, including Judith Enck, a former EPA administrator for a region including New York, have argued that with Wheeler in charge of the EPA, lobbying for coal isn’t as necessary as it once was.
It’s unclear whether Murray’s influence played a role in Trump’s appeal to the TVA to save Paradise 3. But Wheeler’s close ties to the coal industry have followed him as he has moved up at the EPA.
According to documents recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Sierra Club, coal figures greeted Wheeler’s ascent at the EPA.
In one exchange on July 6, 2018 — one day after Pruitt resigned — American Coal Council CEO Betsy Monseu offered support to Wheeler. “As EPA moves forward under your leadership to further the Trump administration’s priorities, I offer best wishes to you and the support of the American Coal Council for continuing the path of regulatory reform and rebalancing,” she wrote.
“Thank you,” Wheeler replied.