Robert Murray, the founder and CEO of Murray Energy, America’s largest privately owned coal company, looked frail as he approached the dais in West Virginia’s capitol building for the EPA’s only public hearing on repealing the Clean Power Plan. Breathing through an oxygen tube, he argued that President Barack Obama’s signature climate change regulation would decimate the coal industry and ruin the lives of coal workers—more than 20 of whom were sitting in the hearing room dressed in full work gear, hardhats and all. “Thank you fellas for being here,” Murray said, “and God bless you.”
Murray is known for many things—his colorful language, climate science denial, frivolous lawsuits—but also for pressuring his salaried employees to support his political causes. As Alex MacGillis reported in The New Republic in 2012, Murray asked those on his payroll to attend fundraisers “to defeat the destructive Barack Obama” and to give money to preferred candidates. He’s also been accused of punishing employees who don’t heed his requests: An employee sued Murray Energy in 2014, alleging she was fired for refusing his requests to donate to specific Republican campaigns.
Thus, seeing the coal workers in the hearing room in Charleston on Tuesday, I asked Murray if he had asked his employees to come. “No, I did not. They came on their own,” he said. “Their lives have been destroyed and they’re here because they wanted to be there. Nobody asked them to be here, and I certainly didn’t ask them to be here.” Later, as the coal workers filed out of the hearing room during a 15-minute break, I asked a Murray worker, Ryan Wilson, whether Murray had asked him to attend. “He did ask,” he said. “He asked for volunteers.”
Wilson and most of the other workers there probably didn’t feel unduly pressured to attend the EPA hearing, as they clearly aren’t fans of the EPA or climate change regulations—and they like their boss. “He supports us, so we’re going to fight for him and show him support,” Wilson said. And though Murray’s story is at odds with Wilson’s, he was straightforward when I asked if he advocates against the Clean Power Plan to his workers. “Of course,” Murray told me. “But I advocate everywhere.”