The Coal King is racing to avoid bankruptcy

Supporters of miners sit on train tracks in Cumberland, Kentucky, U.S., on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.

Robert Murray, the king of the coal industry and a forceful supporter of President Donald Trump, is fighting to save his mining empire from financial collapse.

Murray Energy, America's largest private coal miner, recently failed to make payments to lenders. The company entered into a forbearance agreement that buys it time to negotiate a restructuring. That grace period is scheduled to expire after Monday.

The cash crunch at Murray Energy, one of the most powerful and well-connected companies in the industry, underscores the enormous pressure facing the coal country. Countless coal companies have already filed for bankruptcy.

"It's a difficult time for anyone in the coal industry," said Phil Smith, director of communications and governmental affairs at the United Mine Workers of America. "The industry is in trouble. It has been in trouble for almost a decade now."

Trump's election in 2016 raised hopes in the coal industry for a revival. The president moved swiftly to slash environmental regulations and even installed a former coal lobbyist to lead the EPA.

However, the deregulatory push is being overwhelmed by market forces. Coal just can't compete with cheap natural gas and the plunging cost of solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy.

"Coal is not back," said Smith.

Power companies are ditching coal in favor of cleaner alternatives at a rapid pace. US power plants are expected to consume less coal next year than at any point since President Jimmy Carter was in the White House, according to government forecasts released Tuesday.

S&P downgrades Murray to default status

Unlike many of its peers, Murray Energy was able to overcome the shrinking demand from utilities by focusing on exports. However, those shipments have shrank because of plunging prices overseas.

US coal exports are estimated to have dropped to 20.9 million short tons in the third quarter, according to the US Energy Information Administration. That represents a 28% drop from the same period of 2018. The EIA expected coal exports to keep falling, slipping to 17.3 million by the end of 2020.

"International thermal coal prices have made exports unprofitable for most of 2019, leading to mine idling and deteriorating cash flows," S&P Global Ratings analyst Vania Dimova wrote in a report this week.

Murray Energy is under so much pressure that it failed to make amortization and interest payments during a grace period that ended on October 7. That led S&P Global Ratings to downgrade the company's credit rating to "default."

In a statement last week, Murray Energy said it plans to use the grace period that expires after October 17 to consider its next steps.

The company said it will talk to lenders about "various strategic options" aimed at easing its debt burden, improving its liquidity and achieving a "more sustainable capital structure."

Murray Energy did not respond to a request for comment. The Ohio-based company says it produces about 76 million tons of coal each year and employs nearly 7,000 people across six US states as well as in Colombia.

'Crisis situation' for workers

Mine workers stand to lose in a potential bankruptcy, not just in jobs but potentially in the erosion of healthcare and pension benefits.

Murray Energy is the last major company contributing to the pension plan of the United Mine Workers of America, according to Smith. The pension plan's depleted funding will only get worse if Murray Energy is relieved of its pension requirements.

"This is a crisis situation for us," said Smith, noting that the average pension is less than $600 per month.

Murray, the company's CEO, is a vocal champion of the industry.

In 2017, he praised Trump in an interview with CNN as "very courageous and very prudent" for deciding to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. And Murray simultaneously slammed President Barack Obama as the "greatest destroyer the United States has ever had."

Murray has also been a deep skeptic of the climate crisis, arguing that the threat of climate change is exaggerated.

The financial trouble facing Murray Energy was telegraphed two years ago. In August 2017, Murray wrote a letter to the Trump administration urgently requesting an emergency order to protect coal-fired power plants from being closed. In the letter, Murray warned the White House that failure to issue the order would spark the immediate bankruptcies of his company and a major customer.

"Our time is running out. Please fight for us," Murray wrote in the letter.

However, the Trump administration rejected that cry for help because officials determined there wasn't enough evidence to warrant the use of emergency authority.

In 2017, Murray filed a defamation lawsuit against John Oliver, HBO and CNN owner Time Warner (now called WarnerMedia), alleging "character assassination" during an episode of "Last Week Tonight." That lawsuit was dismissed last year.