President Donald Trump will head to West Virginia on Wednesday to deliver remarks at a fundraiser hosted by coal baron Bob Murray, underscoring the close relationship the coal industry has with the White House even as the industry steadily declines.
The fundraiser comes in the middle of another turbulent month for coal, with Blackhawk Mining the latest company to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Meanwhile, suffering Appalachian coal miners afflicted by black lung disease have been lobbying Congress this week, as coal jobs and benefits ebb away.
Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, will host Trump in Wheeling, West Virginia, on Wednesday at a private fundraising committee reception. Attendees of the fundraiser include West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R), among other lawmakers. In a June letter from Murray requesting Justice’s attendance, the coal executive emphasized re-electing Trump.
“The future of the coal industry and our family livelihoods depend on President Trump being re-elected,” Murray wrote. He also advised donations of at least $150 per attendee to the Trump Victory fundraising committee.
The coal magnate is a long-time supporter of the president and has maintained ties with the administration. He has pushed for the rollback of environmental regulations through a “wish list” given to the administration, in addition to backing a bailout for struggling coal and nuclear plants. Trump in turn has repeatedly lauded “beautiful clean coal” as a key U.S. product.
But coal’s grim trajectory is increasingly at odds with Trump’s rhetoric, even as he has repeatedly sought to rescue the industry. Market forces — namely, the dramatic rise of renewables and natural gas — have helped to push coal into a downward spiral, one confirmed by the government’s own figures.
And the list of of coal companies declaring bankruptcy keeps growing. Eight major U.S. coal producers have filed for bankruptcy since November 2017, five of them this year. This includes Cloud Peak Energy, Blackjewel, and Cambrian. Last week, Blackhawk Mining became the latest to file for bankruptcy. While Blackhawk has said this will not affect its 2,800 employees, the company’s financial struggles are widely reflected across the industry.
Meanwhile, coal workers are increasingly caught in the crossfire. Some companies have sought to void union contracts and walk away from pension obligations, moves that have seen success in court despite outcry from groups like United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
Many retired miners in particular are sick and unable to work after years of physical labor compounded by a condition known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung. That disease is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust and results in respiratory issues and declining lung function. There is currently no cure for black lung.
Trump’s travels to coal country coincide with a trip by a large group of Appalachian miners to Washington, D.C., this week. Many have come to request that Congress bolster the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which has faced growing debt.
That fund provides for miners when companies cannot, including when the corporations go bankrupt. A steadily-increasing tax on coal supported the fund but its higher rate expired last year and the trust fund’s debt is projected to be around $15 billion by 2050. Coal companies have meanwhile lobbied against raising the tax, as doing so impacts them financially.
“Coal miners deserve better. They always have. I certainly hope that lawmakers will be listening this week,” wrote Tyler Hughes, a field director with the nonprofit Appalachian Voices, in a post this week foreshadowing the D.C. trip.
Some lawmakers have sought to support the fund, including Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Alma Adams (D-NC), while Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) has introduced a bill to help miners access the fund’s benefits. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will be critical for efforts to raise the tax and miners, as he has the power to push legislation forward in the Senate.
Miners who met with the senator on Tuesday said they left the interaction disappointed. Many affected by black lung came attached to oxygen tanks in order to meet with McConnell, but they said he gave them only a few minutes of his time and made no guarantees about the disability fund.
Their efforts have added to an argument made by environmental activists, that lawmakers should focus on protecting impacted communities as the country transitions away from fossil fuels. The Green New Deal framework emphasizes prioritizing frontline communities like coal miners through a “just transition,” all while working to rapidly decarbonize the U.S. economy to reach net-zero emissions. Unions have been split on the Green New Deal, citing concerns over jobs.
But while miners desperately lobby lawmakers like McConnell for help, they worry time is running out — as coal companies continue moving towards bankruptcy, all workers, with or without black lung, will be impacted.
And right now, all eyes are on Murray Energy, the only one of the original companies to still be paying dues into a miners’ pension plan established in 1974. That plan is set to collapse by 2022 unless stabilized by lawmakers. But if Murray Energy were to go under, that deadline could come sooner.
It is unclear what role Trump might play in pushing to keep the company afloat should its financial situation decline to the point of bankruptcy. Historically, the president has taken to Twitter in an effort to show support for keeping coal plants alive.
Trump’s allies have also doubled down on propping up coal companies. On Tuesday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) signed legislation bailing out coal and nuclear plants, a measure supported by Trump. DeWine will be among the attendees at Wednesday’s Murray fundraiser.