Coal company Murray Energy, whose chief executive is a major supporter of President Donald Trump, has reportedly been funding opposition to an offshore wind farm project in Lake Erie, according to lawyers representing the project.
Murray Energy kept its relationship to the wind farm’s opposition hidden to the point that even opponents of the Icebreaker Windpower project — proposed to be built about eight miles north of Cleveland — were unaware that the coal company was allegedly paying for part of their legal fees.
But that all changed when the developers of the wind farm, Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. (LEEDCo), provided evidence to state regulators last week that Murray Energy funded a lawyer representing two residents from the town of Bratenahl, Ohio, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Sunday.
In their depositions with LEEDCo attorneys, the residents testified they were not sure who was paying their legal fees in their fight against the offshore wind project. As it was also revealed, one of the expert witnesses used by the residents to help their case against the project had his legal fees paid by Murray Energy.
The law firm representing the residents and the expert witness was the same: Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan, & Aranoff of Cleveland. Given this connection between the residents and Murray energy via the expert witness, Sara Jodka, an attorney for LEEDCo said Monday in an email to ThinkProgress, “We believe that evidence is sufficient proof that Murray Energy is also paying the legal fees and expenses incurred by the Bratenahl residents to intervene in this matter and oppose the project.”
Because the two residents had gained intervenor status at the Ohio Power Siting Board, which has yet to issue a final ruling on the project, they were allowed to be deposed by attorneys for LEEDCo.
During the discovery process in the proceeding, it was revealed that Murray Energy was paying the fees for a consultant to study the impacts of an offshore wind project similar to the one proposed in Lake Erie. The behind-the-scenes nature of the lawyer fees was also discussed.
The $126 million Icebreaker wind project would be located about eight miles into the lake. The 20.7 megawatt project will consist of six 3.45-megawatt turbines.
Headquartered in Ohio, Murray Energy has previously lobbied for bills introduced in the state legislature to roll back laws that favor renewable energy. As it was engaging in anti-renewables lobbying in Ohio, the company was also pushing the Trump administration to provide government assistance to prevent the closure of coal-fired power plants.
Coal still makes up a huge chunk of electricity generation in Ohio, at 54 percent of the total capacity, followed by natural gas at 32 percent. Renewables represent only 3 percent of the share of electricity generation in the state, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
“We have a long way to go in Ohio before wind would make any sizable dent in coal,” Beth Nagusky, LEEDCo’s director of sustainable development, told ThinkProgress. “The bigger threat to coal in Ohio is natural gas.”
But last month, Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray railed against “government interference” in energy markets, calling for an end to tax credits for the wind energy industry. Speaking at the Politico Pro Policy Summit in Washington, D.C., Murray, said “we need to let the markets work.” At the same time, Murray has repeatedly urged the Trump administration to bail out the coal industry.
The Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) and many advocacy groups “have long suspected that Murray Energy has been funding opposition to offshore wind,” Heather Taylor-Miesle, executive director of the OEC, told ThinkProgress. “But now we have hard evidence confirming our long-held suspicion.”
Last Thursday, lawyers for the project’s developers, LEEDCo, submitted depositions to the Ohio Power Siting Board it had taken with two opponents of the project who had intervened in the proceeding at the state agency earlier this year. One of the depositions was with Robert Maloney, a resident of Bratenahl, on the coast of Lake Erie.
Maloney is the owner of a company that buys and sells petroleum products. He said he’s opposed to wind turbines in Lake Erie because it would harm his view of the lake from his high-rise condominium building in Bratenahl. In response to a separate question from LEEDCo’s attorney during the deposition, Maloney added, “I’m not opposed to coal.”
When asked about who was paying for his legal fees, Maloney testified that he thought his personal attorney, John Stock of the law firm Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff firm, was representing him on a pro bono basis. When LEEDCo lawyers suggested that Murray Energy was paying Stock to represent him before the state board, Maloney said he was unaware of the payment arrangements.
Susan Dempsey, another Bratenahl resident opposed to the wind farm, also testified in a sworn deposition that she was unaware Murray Energy was paying for Stock to represent her before the state board.
“We’re really disturbed and disappointed that Murray Energy didn’t play by the rules. They should have gone through the right kind of process like the rest of us do instead of funding unsuspecting parties with their dirty coal money,” Taylor-Miesle said.
Although handled in an opaque manner, Murray Energy’s funding of opposition voices to the wind farm reportedly did not violate any laws.
Murray Energy spokesperson said in an email to ThinkProgress that the company “does not know the Bratenahl resident who are standing up to protect Lake Erie for the citizens of Ohio, and it has never communicated with the Bratenahl residents.”
In statement to the Plain Dealer, the Murray Energy spokesperson, Cody Nett, said the company “is pleased that its outside counsel … can assist the Bratenahl residents to prevent Icebreaker from steam-rolling this project through the Ohio Power Siting Board certification process without the public scrutiny and opposition that it deserves.”
In a letter to the editor of the Plain Dealer — dated Tuesday — about Sunday’s article, Robert Murray wrote that his company’s only interest in the Icebreaker wind project “is to get the facts out relative to the unreliability of wind power and the cost of electricity to consumers and ratepayers generated by it.”
“The construction of this project will make no difference whatsoever to our company, but our involvement has been to alert our citizens as to what they may be getting into,” Murray wrote. “Indeed, at the minimum, this project will end the pristine view of Lake Erie for many Cuyahoga County residents.”
The Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan, & Aranoff law firm, employed by Murray Energy in the Icebreaker wind project case, has also worked on a number of other wind power siting cases in Ohio and at least one other state.
“The depositions and discovery documents filed in the Icebreaker case confirmed what many environmentalists and clean energy advocates had long suspected,” Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the Energy & Policy Institute, a nonprofit utility watchdog group, told ThinkProgress via email.
The name of the same law firm also appeared on a “confidential memorandum” where Murray Energy detailed its strategy for the Trump administration, according to an Energy and Policy Institute report released in June. The subject line of the memo read: “Strategy to promote reliable and low cost electricity in America and to assist in the survival of our country’s coal industry.”
Exponent Inc., a consultant firm hired to analyze the economic viability of a small wind farm such as Icebreaker, said Murray Energy was responsible for paying it $430 an hour, plus expenses. Stock, working on behalf of Murray Energy, hired Exponent for the consulting project, according to a September 11, 2017 letter obtained during the discovery phase of the power plant hearing process.
In July, the staff of the Ohio Power Siting Board recommended the state allow the construction of the project. Late last month, the Ohio Environmental Protection approved the project, granting the developers a water quality certificate. The company still must get approval of a bird and bat monitoring plan for the project as well as several other approvals.
LEEDCo are expecting a decision from the Ohio Power Siting Board on its application to build the offshore wind farm by the end of the year, LEEDCo’s Nagusky said.
The developers are hoping to begin construction on the project in the summer of 2021. It would be the first freshwater wind farm in North America.
Article updated on August 7, 2018 to include comments from a Murray Energy spokesperson and passages from a letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer sent by Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray.