Coal magnate Robert Murray has just joined Wall Street billionaire Carl Icahn in an exclusive club — wealthy backers of President Donald Trump who tried and failed to get lucrative concessions from his administration.
Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, one of the nation’s biggest and most politically active coal miners, complained in an Aug. 4 letter made public Tuesday that the Energy Department had dragged its feet on his request that it use its emergency powers to force some Rust Belt coal-fired power plants to stay open. Trump was so taken by the idea that he immediately turned to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and ordered him to do it, wrote Murray, who said he had witnessed the conversation.
But DOE said no.
Murray’s failure to shift the policy, and Icahn’s earlier inability to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to alter its ethanol rule, raises questions about the limits of bulldog business leaders to circumvent the government’s bureaucracy, even in an administration run by a sympathetic billionaire.
“These are two people who really don’t understand how government works talking to a president who came into office not understanding how government works,” said Jeff Navin, a founder of Boundary Stone Partners and former acting chief of staff at the Department of Energy under President Barack Obama. “What they’re asking for causes serious legal problems for the agencies they’re asking to take these steps."
Some conservatives, meanwhile, praised Trump for sticking up for market principles by refusing to grant favors to individual supporters.
The Trump administration “is committed to making sound policy decisions based on market principles and the rule of law, not political favoritism,” said Tom Pyle, president of the industry-funded American Energy Alliance and former head of the Trump transition team at the Energy Department. “This is welcome news for Main Street and a wake-up call for K Street.”
Icahn was an early Trump supporter — the two men go back decades — and though Murray started 2016 backing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, he eventually boarded the Trump train, hosting a major fundraiser in West Virginia and offering to educate Trump on coal issues. Trump’s victory in November meant both had a chance to advance pet policies, especially since it seems both men have regular access to the president.
Yet both met with defeat.
The Energy Department rejected Murray’s request that it use a special authority meant to protect the electric grid during emergencies to order FirstEnergy Solutions, part of Ohio-based utility FirstEnergy Corp., to keep open its coal-fired plants supplied by Murray’s mines, even if the utility enters bankruptcy proceedings and would otherwise shut them down. Murray said if those power plants shut down, it would force his company into bankruptcy.
Trump seemed fully supportive in private meetings, Murray revealed in letters to the White House, which were first published by the Associated Press.
At one meeting with the president, Trump turned to Perry in front of Murray "and said three (3) times ‘I want this done,’" the coal company owner wrote. During a subsequent meeting with Murray and FirstEnergy Corp. CEO Charles Jones, Trump told an aide to "’tell [National Economic Council Director Gary] Cohn to do whatever these two want him to do.’"
But despite Trump’s reported enthusiasm to grant Murray’s unusual request, and despite Murray’s assurances that other coal producers would benefit as well, the administration this week rejected it. DOE said in a short statement that “the evidence does not warrant the use of this emergency authority.”
A White House spokeswoman did not address whether Trump had made the promises to Murray, but said the president had acted on behalf of coal miners by killing Obama-era rules.
“Whether through repealing the Clean Power Plan and the ‘Waters of the U.S. Rule,’ removing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, or signing legislation to overturn rules and policies designed to stop coal mining, President Trump continues to fight for miners every day," White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said in a statement.
Similarly, Icahn’s push to change a federal biofuel program to help his oil refining company CVR Energy also suffered defeat earlier in the month. The Wall Street investor for years had railed against the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires gasoline refiners to blend ethanol into their fuel, and Icahn’s role as an unofficial Trump adviser on regulations presented him the opening he had sought.
In the early weeks of the Trump administration, Icahn presented the White House with language for an executive order to overturn the rule, which was costing his company hundreds of millions of dollars. But Icahn’s effort hit a wall of opposition from oil companies and biofuel makers, and by spring, the proposal was largely left for dead. Sources told POLITICO earlier this month that the president would not be changing the biofuel program, though EPA has yet to make the decision official.
"[Icahn] comes in hot, his guy wins, Trump places a crown on Icahn’s head, and Icahn says ‘OK, it’s corporate raider time,’" said Tyson Slocum, energy director for the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. "He knows hardball tactics. What Carl Icahn doesn’t know is D.C."
Last week, Icahn resigned his title, and in another sign that he was wrapping up his affairs in D.C., he settled a court challenge to an enforcement action brought by the Federal Railroad Administration against American Railcar Industries, another Icahn-controlled company. That final settlement largely resembles the inspection regime the agency originally imposed, an FRA spokeswoman said.
One critic said the lack of experience in the new administration appeared to open the door for both Icahn and Murray, even if neither managed to step through it.
“I think we’ve seen, in this administration, at least reports of an under-attentiveness to those procedural and institutional safeguards. That creates risk for unsound decisions to be made,” said Ali Zaidi, a former Obama White House energy adviser now at the law firm Morrison & Foerster.
Icahn and Murray aren’t the only ones seeking special treatment.
Coal billionaire-turned-West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has proposed a federal subsidy for Appalachian coal in a plan that could net his own mines millions of dollars.
Justice privately pitched Trump on a subsidy that would pay utilities $15 per ton of Appalachian coal burned, and he said in a recent interview the president was "really interested" in the plan, which would cost an estimated $4.5 billion a year and likely require congressional approval.
But Justice’s proposal has not been received well by key circles. It’s gone over “like a fart in church” with Western coal miners, according to Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association. And Wyoming’s congressional delegation — including Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso — panned the idea in a letter to Trump. Democrats, environmentalists and budget-hawk Republicans are also opposed to any coal subsidy.
Justice might look to the results that Icahn and Murray got.
Icahn and Murray "both became completely consumed with their own narrow self-interest, and they completely lost sight that there are a lot of stakeholders — including corporate stakeholders — that may not like their proposals,” said Public Citizen’s Slocum.