Coal Tattoo

What if Murray buys CONSOL’s W.Va. mines?

Robert Murray

It seems like a lot of folks in the coal and energy media are pretty convinced that Murray Energy is getting ready to buy most of CONSOL Energy’s West Virginia coal-mining operations.  We’ve seen stories so far this week from Barron’s, the Wall Street Journal, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Privately-held Murray Energy was among the companies listed in last week’s Wall Street Journal story about CONSOL’s efforts to restructure itself, as were Chris Cline’s Foresight Energy and Alliance Resource Partners.  The more recent Wall Street Journal item also mentioned a possible bid by coal industry veteran Ben Statler, formerly of CONSOL and PinnOak Resources.

Much of the media speculation appears to be traced back to this information, recounted by the Tribune-Review in its story:

Coal & Energy Price Report in Knoxville, Tenn., said Consol is “very close” to a deal to sell the mines to St. Clairsville, Ohio-based Murray Energy Inc., newsletter editor Jim Thompson said, attributing his information to multiple industry contacts without identifying them.

He said Consol likely will sell its Shoemaker, Robinson Run, McElroy, Blacksville and Loveridge mines, plus related assets such as barges and transportation equipment “as a pure thermal coal domestic play.” Those mines produce coal for electricity generation and have output of 28 million to 30 million tons a year.

Thompson did not know the price, but Clarkson Capital Markets analyst Jeremy Sussman in New York said in a report that Shoemaker, Robinson Run and McElroy may be worth about $450 million each.

The story continued:

Thompson called Murray Energy and CEO Bob Murray a “very strong player in the industry,” and the transaction would double its output, adding 30 million tons to the 30 million in annual production it already has. “It would give them a stronger position in northern Appalachia and better access to reserves they already own. It’s about as close as you can come to a win-win for Consol and Murray, and the people who work at those coal mines.”

Murray Energy officials have declined to comment, as they did last night when I contacted them for a response to the continued media reports. Meanwhile, though, Darren Epps at SNL Financial had a piece that examined some of the implications if such a deal ends up happening. The headline is pretty much on the money: Potential deal with CONSOL would make Murray Energy a force in Northern App. The story explains:

A rumored deal involving CONSOL Energy Inc. and Murray Energy Corp. would make the privately held Murray a dominant producer in Northern Appalachia, but also raises questions about the legacy liabilities associated with the mines involved in a potential deal.

If Murray were to acquire the mines, the company would own seven of the 13 highest-producing Northern Appalachia mines, based on data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Murray already owns the Century and the Powhatan No. 6 mines in Ohio.

The CONSOL mines reportedly for sale are the company’s union assets. Doyle Trading Consultants LLC said Oct. 14 that the union assets have more than $3 billion in legacy liabilities associated with them. In an Oct. 15 note, BB&T Capital Markets analyst Mark Levin placed the number at about $4 billion. Doyle said Murray works with the United Mine Workers of America at Powhatan No. 6.

“Assuming [the report] is right, we wonder what will happen to the company’s legacy liabilities (~$4B), and if so, how they will be valued,” Levin said. “We also wonder if CNX would decide to keep the Baltimore export terminal.”

Currently, Murray Energy has no active mines in West Virginia, though the company employs West Virginians at its operations across the river in Ohio. And the mines CONSOL is looking to unload — Blacksville 2, Loveridge 22, McElroy, Robinson Run, and Shoemaker — are among the state’s top producers. They’re also probably as well positioned as any coal operations in West Virginia going forward. As we explained in a story on Sunday:

Those CONSOL mines are generally considered by industry experts to be more insulated from some of the pressures affecting the rest of the mining business. CONSOL uses advanced longwall mining machines, and its operations generally produce high-sulfur coal that can be burned by scrubber-equipped power plants that are considered less likely to be shuttered by utilities.

And generally speaking, Northern Appalachian coal production – which includes Northern West Virginia — has not been projected to show the steep declines that are ongoing in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, where large-scale surface mining has been more prevalent and a larger share of high-quality reserves are believed to have been mined out.

It’s important to remember that these CONSOL mines have long-standing relationships with the United Mine Workers of America union. Generations of West Virgina UMWA miners have provided for their families by working at CONSOL operations in northern West Virginia and in the north-central part of the state.

And that brings us to some of the other potential implications of this rumored deal between Murray Energy and CONSOL. The coal industry isn’t all about tonnage and pricing and stuff like that. As we’ve all learned from the Patriot Coal bankruptcy, what financial analysts call “legacy liabilities” our neighbors think of as their health-care benefits and pensions.

Romney 2012

Hundreds of coal miners and their families stand in line while waiting to attend a rally at the Century Mine near Beallsville, Ohio, for Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/The Intelligencer, Scott Mccloskey)

West Virginia’s coal industry still provides important jobs and tax revenues, along with the coal it produces for power plants and steel mills. But the state remains at a sort-of crossroads, examining the broader implications of coal on our the climate of our planet, the health of our communities and our environment, the safety and health of the industry’s workers, and where coalfield economies are headed over the long-term.

So it’s worth pointing out that the vast majority of Murray Energy’s mines are non-union operations.  And at mines where workers were unionized — such as Maple Creek in Pennsylvania and Powhatan in Ohio — the UMWA and Murray Energy have not always gotten along so well (see here, here and here, for example). So far, the UMWA isn’t saying anything about the rumors of a CONSOL sale to Murray, and union officials seem to know little more than the rest of us about what’s happening behind the scenes.

Over the years, CEO Bob Murray has been an outspoken opponent of government efforts to force reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, arguing despite the overall scientific consensus, that global warming science is “highly speculative,” as he told a House committee back in 2007:

You see, so-called ‘‘global warming’’ is a human issue to me, not just an environmental one. The unfolding debate over atmospheric warming in the Congress, the news media, and by the pundits has been skewed and totally one-sided, in that they have been preoccupied with possible, speculative environmental disasters of climate change. However, few are giving adequate attention to the destruction that we will definitely see for American working people from all of the climate change proposals that have been introduced in the House and Senate to date.

While some want us to believe that the science behind so-called ‘‘global warming’’ is certain, to the contrary, the actual environmental risk associated with carbon emissions is highly speculative. It is a fact, however, that every proposal introduced to date will provide a far more certain risk that carbon dioxide emission limits will destroy coal and manufacturing dependent communities and inflict great hardships on America’s families.

And it wasn’t so long ago — last July — that one of Murray Energy’s companies, the Ohio Valley Coal Co., pleaded guilty in federal court to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act arising from two coal-slurry release incidents that prosecutors said polluted Captina Creek in Belmont County, Ohio. The Associated Press reported at the time that Murray Energy:

… Acknowledged in a statement Friday that it had reached an agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio “to resolve potential charges, stemming from two incidents.” Murray, based in northeast Ohio’s Pepper Pike and in St. Clairsville in southeast Ohio, said Ohio Valley began two years ago to install the “pipe-within-a-pipe system” designed to eliminate the potential for another release. Murray said its independently operated subsidiary also has installed equipment and controls to monitor the pipeline.

Of course, another of Murray’s companies, Genwall Resources, also pleaded guilty to two criminal charges stemming from the 2007 collapse of the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, a disaster that killed six miners and three rescue workers. Murray’s company also later settled with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, though the company continued to say the criminal charges and the citations had nothing to do with the cause of the mine disaster.

Mitt Romney

During last year’s presidential election, Murray Energy was at the forefront of the industry’s “war on coal” campaign to defeat President Obama’s re-election effort. Murray raised money and hosted fundraisers and media rallies for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. After the strategy failed, some in the coal industry wanted to reassess their campaign, as the National Journal’s Coral Davenport reported:

Privately, many people working for the coal lobby concede that time has finally come for coal to face up to climate change. They don’t want the coal industry to look like a science-denying dinosaur—a charge that’s also been leveled against many Republicans on the far right. They recognize that the game has changed, with a new energy market and administration that will regulate them against their will. They believe it’s time to stop the war, engage the enemy, and to ask it for help, both in developing environmental regulations and researching the new technology. But that thought turns the stomach of the corporate chiefs at some of the country’s oldest coal companies—the titans used to the halcyon days of coal power.

Where does Murray Energy fit in to this difference of views among members of the industry lobby group, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity? Davenport explained:

One of ACCCE’s most important members is Ohio-based Murray Energy, the nation’s largest privately owned coal producer. “There is no relationship between the utilization of coal and climate change,” company spokesman Gary Broadbent wrote to me in an e-mail. “Our members of Congress, and particularly the Obama administration, confuse scientific facts and evidence with their own beliefs.”

And what about the idea that carbon-capture technology can save coal?

“The government has already spent substantially on carbon capture and storage (“CCS”) technology, and we have not made progress,” Broadbent wrote. “The promise of CCS technology is used by politicians to pretend that they are doing something for the coal industry, when they are not.”

Just last month, in a speech at the Bluefield Coal Show, Bob Murray continued his harsh criticism of the Obama administration, saying the following:

The is no question that the United States coal industry is being destroyed by the actions of President Barack H. Obama and his radical followers and supporters … Mr. Obama’s actions are a human issue to me, as I know the names of many of the Americans whose jobs and family livelihoods are being destroyed as he appeases his radical environmentalist, unionist, liberal elitist, Hollywood character, and other constituents. These folks are my employees.

These good Americans only want to work in honor and dignity. But, when their jobs and those of their neighbors are eliminated in the coal mining areas of America, they have no one to sell their homes to, which is generally their only possession. Thus, these people, who only want to work, are prohibited from doing so and fall to the negative side of the economic ledger for the rest of their lives. This is not the America that I have always cherished.

Many prominent Americans are now discussing the need to impeach President Obama … Maybe you will want to be a part of this effort.

What will happen if Murray Energy buys these CONSOL mines? Stay tuned … we might just find out.