ST. CLAIRSVILLE - The Ohio Valley's energy sector received a shake-up late last year when Murray Energy Corp. acquired five Consolidation Coal Co. mines in West Virginia - two of which are located in Marshall County.
The $3.5 billion purchase, which closed in December, allowed Murray to acquire the former McElroy and Shoemaker mines in Marshall County, along with the Robinson Run and Loveridge mines in Marion County and the Blacksville No. 2 Mine that straddles the Monongalia County-Greene County, Pa., line.
All five mines have been renamed, with Shoemaker now known as the "Ohio County Coal Co.'s Ohio County Mine;" McElroy, the "Marshall County Coal Co.'s Marshall County Mine;" the Loveridge mine will now be the "Marion County Coal Co.'s Marion County Mine;" the Robinson Run mine will be "The Harrison County Coal Co.'s Harrison County Mine;" and the Blacksville mine will be renamed the "Monongalia County Coal Co.'s Monongalia County Mine."
Robert E. Murray is the founder, chairman, president and CEO of Murray Energy.
Murray Energy now finds itself on a road that has it as the fourth largest coal company in America in terms of revenues, and fifth largest in terms of production, company spokesman Gary Broadbent said.
"Murray Energy and its subsidiary companies now employ approximately 7,100 Americans and currently operate 13 active coal mines, consisting of 13 underground longwall mining systems and 46 continuous mining units in Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Utah, and West Virginia," Broadbent said. "Our acquisition of Consolidation Coal Co. positions Murray Energy to produce about 65 million tons of coal per year and increases Murray Energy's reserve holdings to about 3 billion saleable tons of coal. This production and reserve base will allow Murray Energy to even better and more flexibly serve our electric utility customers with affordable, reliable, and high quality coal supplies."
But the coal industry remains a challenge. Murray Energy founder, chairman, president and CEO Robert Murray said coal production in our region is down 43 percent from 2008 levels, and he predicts more declines.
"I don't think there is any question we will continue to see decreases in employment in the coal industry in West Virginia as a result of the actions of President Barack Obama, his radical appointees - mostly from the environmental movements - and his political supporters," Murray said during an event with the West Virginia Coal Association. "I look for the 43 percent to increase as more and more regulations are enacted by the Obama administration," he said. "He has so far closed 392 coal-fired power plants in the United States - that's a loss of about 100,000 megawatts of electricity.
"It's a human issue to me because I know the names of these miners whose jobs and family livelihoods are being destroyed. If they own anything, it's their homes, and when the jobs are eliminated in their communities, there is no one to sell their homes to. These are people who want to work in honor and dignity and they're being denied that. These are my employees. This is not the America that I cherish."
Murray said safety will remain the top priority for his company.
"We don't say, 'our first priority is safety.' It is the only subject I talk about when I'm talking about safety," he said. "We are well-recognized for our fire protection and emergency preparedness. We have programs not mandated by any laws to protect the safety of our employees from mine fires. We have fire brigades that we train - hundreds of miners on each shift of every day in the mine. We spend millions of dollars on firefighting equipment that is not required by any law."
Murray said he is most concerned by mine fires, as his personal experience left him "terrified."
"I got caught in one, succumbed, and was saved," he said. "I was caught in another one and got out. And I've been present in two mines where there were explosions or mine fires. So I am terrified of mine fires."
Murray said his company has special trucks with mazes to practice by putting out artificial smoke, as well as special equipment and fire stations underground. However, he said the training is what sets the company apart.
"These people are pros and they're on each shift," he said. "If we have a fire, they go to the fire and put it out. We're recognized worldwide for what we do here. It is coal mining and there are many hazards. But I say to every young person I bring into the mines, 'No pound of coal is worth getting hurt over.'"
Murray said the mines and workers now employed by him following the Consol deal will be familiar with his approach to safety, save for some minor differences.
"Our approach has the same emphasis but it's different," he said. "We believe in extensive task training and discipline, more so than additional rules. If you get yourself hurt, you will be disciplined because we don't want anybody hurt."
Mining is not the only energy matter on Murray's mind these days, though, as he has been sparring with former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon over McClendon's use of the name "American Energy Partners" for his new natural gas firm.
Murray in August sued McClendon in U.S. District Court in Ohio for "misappropriation and infringement" of the American Energy Corp. trade name, which is a Murray subsidiary that operates the Century Mine near Beallsville. Murray claims McClendon is violating the Ohio Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the Ohio Common Law of Unfair Competition.
McClendon says in a legal filing that he does not believe Murray should have the exclusive right to the "American Energy" name - and has filed a countersuit against Murray in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma. McClendon also is trying to transfer the Ohio case to Oklahoma.
McClendon recently started American Energy Partners, which, like Chesapeake, is based in Oklahoma City.
Murray believes McClendon is "attempting to cause confusion in the marketplace and further his goal of eliminating the use of coal in America."
Murray also alleges McClendon has a "nefarious reputation" in the Upper Ohio Valley.
"We will take all legal actions necessary to protect our goodwill and reputation from the damages caused by Mr. McClendon's use of an identical tradename," Murray added.