Miners Can Be Optimistic

Robert Murray is a shrewd, successful businessman. But his own warnings of gloom and doom for the coal industry would seem to be an excellent argument against what he did Monday.

Murray Energy Corp., based in St. Clairsville, purchased five Consol Energy coal mines in northern West Virginia. The company’s McElroy and Shoemaker mines in Marshall County are part of the deal.

As president of the company named for him, Murray has been no stranger to risk. On Monday, however, he took the biggest, boldest step yet. In a deal worth about $3.5 billion, he doubled the size of his company. It now has about twice as many employees and produces about twice as much coal as before.

A decade ago, Consol would have been unlikely to sell the five mines. The firm was a coal company, providing a fuel on which more than 50 percent of the U.S. relied for electricity.

Times have changed in two important ways. In part because of the shale drilling boom, Consol is repositioning itself to focus on natural gas. During the past five years, while the firm’s coal output has dwindled, gas production has doubled.

West Virginians and Ohioans are all-too-familiar with the second change. It began in 2009, when Barack Obama was inaugurated as president and started keeping his campaign promises to make it prohibitively expensive to burn coal in power plants. Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has engaged in a very real war on coal – and on reasonably priced electricity.

In just a few years, the White House has had some success in its campaign. Now, only about 42 percent of the nation’s power is generated at coal-fired stations. Domestic consumption of coal has slumped – and this is just the beginning. Utilities have announced plans to shut down hundreds of coal-fired generating units.

Murray has been among the chief critics of the Obama administration, warning it seeks nothing less than the destruction of the U.S. coal industry.

He may believe a change in the Washington power structure will end the war on coal. He may believe he can operate the former Consol mines more efficiently, and beat other coal companies on price. He may believe the export market holds promise.

Murray usually keeps his cards close to the vest, so details of his reasoning are not known. Again, however, he has a record of success – and that should make workers at the former Consol mines optimistic.