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Coal Baron Stood Up for Miners Until He Ran Out of Money

Will Wade

(Bloomberg) -- Coal baron Robert Murray’s support for union miners is part of the lore surrounding a man who’s worked in the industry for six decades. Now, that battle has ended.

Buried under $2.7 billion in debt, Murray Energy Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection on Tuesday. Under a proposed restructuring, the 79-year-old Murray will no longer be chief executive officer of the company he founded. A new entity will be created to buy up the company’s assets while ditching more than $8 billion in pension and health-care obligations to miners.

Other struggling coal companies, including Peabody Energy Corp., used similar strategies to shed costly union obligations in the past. But it’s a stark shift for Robert Murray, who has long advocated for rank-and-file miners, according to Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America. Now that the company is in bankruptcy, Smith sees creditors and lenders, rather than Murray, driving many of the key strategic moves.

“Bob Murray could have done what he did today several years ago, when everybody else was,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “With respect to living up to his obligations to retirees, he’s done that until today. He was forced into this.”

A Murray spokesmen didn’t reply to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

Robert Moore was chief financial officer at the company before being named CEO to replace Murray under the restructring plan. He cited Robert Murray’s “longstanding history and valued partnership” with the company’s unions in a filing.

“Nonetheless,” Moore said, “the cost of servicing its funded debt, together with the myriad of obligations Murray has to current and former employees, including to a pension fund that has been abandoned by other employers, have substantially reduced liquidity.”

1987 Event

A big part of Murray’s legacy came in 1987. As CEO of North American Coal Corp., he refused to back a plan to reincorporate in Delaware, and shed obligations to about 1,800 UMWA retirees. Murray has said he was fired for it, though the company said at the time that it changed CEOs as part of a broader strategy to diversify into non-coal operations.

Either way, he was out of a job and he has said it motivated him to start his namesake venture.

Today, the coal industry is under threat. Utilities increasingly are turning to cheap natural gas and renewables to fuel their grids, and prices for coal have slumped as demand wanes. At least four other miners have filed for Chapter 11 this year, and that follows a wave of bankruptcies that swept the industry in 2015 and 2016.

Those insolvencies often included plans to pull out of a collective pension plan for union miners that dates to 1974. Many of those companies have since exited bankruptcy with healthier balance sheets after wiping out debt. There were 2,800 companies putting money into the fund in 1984, but by January that had dwindled to 11. And as each company exited the fund, the remaining ones had to assume the costs to cover participants.

Murray was paying about $2 per worker-hour in 2007, but that’s swelled to about $6 now, according to Rachel Greszler, a research fellow with the Heritage Foundation. With about 6,000 active workers across the industry supporting 90,000 retirees, she expects the pension fund to be insolvent within three years, a schedule that may be accelerated if Murray and its 2,400 active union workers pull out.

Those costs have become an unsustainable drag on the company’s balance sheet, and were one of the factors why it’s pursuing Chapter 11.

“It makes it hard to stay in business and compete with companies that don’t have those obligations,” she said. “It’s with a heavy heart that Murray had to declare bankruptcy.”

(Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority stakeholder of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, has committed $500 million to launch Beyond Carbon, a campaign aimed at closing the remaining coal-powered plants in the U.S. by 2030 and slowing the construction of new gas plants.)

--With assistance from Steven Church and Jeremy Hill.

To contact the reporter on this story: Will Wade in New York at wwade4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lynn Doan at ldoan6@bloomberg.net, Reg Gale, Joe Carroll

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