Two coal-fueled power plants to shutter, despite pressure from Trump

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By Phil McCausland  with NBC News Politics
Robert Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy Corp., speaks during an interview in his office at the Crandall Canyon Mine, in Huntington, Utah on Aug. 22, 2007.   -   Copyright  Jae C. Hong AP file

An independent federal agency announced that it would close two coal plants, including one that buys its fuel from one of President Donald Trump's campaign contributors, despite puBlic pressure from the president to keep it open.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) said Thursday that it had decided to close two outdated coal plants over the next few years, including one in Kentucky that bought much of its fuel from Murray Energy. That company is owned by Robert Murray, a generous supporter of the president.

The board met Thursday to discuss the potential shuttering of the plants that are 50 years old after a series of TVA assessments deemed them to be obsolescent and wasteful of energy. The agency said earlier in the week that the facilities produced a steady, inflexible amount of power and could not bend to "the increased volatility in energy consumption" of its customer base.

In a 5-2 vote, the board of directors chose to shutter the Kentucky plant in 2020 and the Tennessee plant in 2023.

Their decision came despite Republican politicians, including Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul of Kentucky, urging to keep the plants open.

The president entered the fray over the potential closure on Monday, stating on Twitter that TVA needed to "give serious consideration to all factors before voting to close viable power plants, like Paradise #3 in Kentucky."

Data compiled by the Energy Information Administration shows that the Paradise Fossil Plant, outside Drakesboro, Kentucky, has trucked in millions of tons of coal since at least 2013 from the nearby Paradise #9 Mine, which is owned and operated by Murray Energy.

Murray is a prolific donor to Republican causes through the Murray Energy Corporation Political Action Committee. The group donated nearly $350,000 in the 2016 election to Republican causes, including $100,000 to the Trump Victory Super PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Robert Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy Corp., speaks during an interview in his office at the Crandall Canyon Mine, in Huntington, Utah on Aug. 22, 2007.
Robert Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy Corp., speaks during an interview in his office at the Crandall Canyon Mine, in Huntington, Utah on Aug. 22, 2007.Jae C. Hong

Murray Energy said over email earlier this week that its chairman "did not have any contact with President Trump or anyone in his administration on this issue."

"In the interest of the TVA ratepayers, the remaining coal-fired unit at the Paradise Plant must remain in operation," the company wrote. "The power will be more reliable and lower cost than any alternative."

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

In its November environmental assessment draft, TVA estimated that there would be a direct loss of 231 jobs between the two plants, which they could reassign, but that would not account for employment at the coal mines that provide it fuel.

After its vote, TVA said it was committed to work with the affected employees and communities.

"Obviously every facility every community is unique in its needs," said Jim Hopson, TVA's public information officer. "We will be spending the next several weeks and months working with the affected employees as well as community leaders to learn how best to mitigate the effects of this decision."

Hopson said that some employees may elect to retire, others could be moved to other facilities — which would likely require them to leave their communities — and others may be offered "incentives" to pursue other opportunities.

As for the affected communities, Hopson said that TVA would try to redevelop the two properties into other viable revenue stream. He noted that the agency had previously found success by attracting Google to refurbish a TVA-retired coal facility in North Alabama into a data center.

About 39 percent of coal-mining jobs have disappeared over the past 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accounting for tens of thousands of lost jobs in largely rural communities.

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky. told NBC News prior to the decision that TVA should maintain that "diverse portfolio."

The congressman, who represents the district in Kentucky that would be affected by the plant's closure, noted that coal once made up half of the utility's resources. It is now less than a quarter.

"If you look at the future, no one knows what the future holds. Now natural gas is cheap, but no one knows what the price of natural gas is in the future," Comer said. "I fear completely abandoning coal when coal is still going to be a reliable, affordable, clean source of energy in the future."