CLEVELAND, Ohio – Boaters and birders have been upfront about their opposition to the six-turbine Icebreaker Wind project planned for Lake Erie, but a new, powerful voice of resistance has recently emerged: Big Coal.
In documents and sworn statements filed with the Ohio Power Siting Board on Thursday, the wind farm developers presented evidence that Murray Energy Corp. has been bankrolling anti-Icebreaker consultants, as well as lawyers representing two Bratenahl residents who have testified against the project.
Cody E. Nett, a spokesman for Murray Energy, confirmed the company’s involvement by e-mail and said, “Murray Energy is pleased that its outside counsel… can assist the Bratenahl residents to prevent Icebreaker from steam-rolling this project through the Ohio Power Siting Board certification process without the public scrutiny and opposition that it deserves.”
Robert Murray, who has homes in Moreland Hills and Belmont County, is the founder and CEO of the nation’s largest privately-owned coal company, with 16 active mines in five states and Colombia, South America. As coal sales plunge and hundreds of coal-fired power plants are shut down across the country, green energy facilities such as Icebreaker pose a formidable new source of competition for Murray’s coal companies.
Even if Murray had wanted to intervene in the state certification process for Icebreaker, he likely would have been denied, said David Karpinski, vice president of operations for the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation. Interveners must first file a request to participate in the decision-making process with the siting board, which is responsible for reviewing applications for the construction of major utility facilities such as power plants and wind farms.
As a potential direct competitor of the $126 million Icebreaker project, Murray Energy probably wouldn’t have been allowed to intervene before the siting board, Karpinski said.
Nor could Murray Energy have worked to oppose Icebreaker by putting its substantial resources behind the Campaign for American Affordable and Reliable Energy, a trade group whose stated mission is “to protect, preserve and promote America’s affordable and reliable coal-fired electricity generation.” The state siting board denied three previous attempts by the group to intervene in wind projects after finding that the group objected to wind farms in general and would not be impacted directly by any of the projects.
Trish Demeter, vice president of energy policy at the Ohio Environmental Council, said Murray’s behind-the-scenes activity in the Icebreaker case is an example of “his no-holds-barred approach at stymieing Ohio’s energy future.”
“At the OEC, we’ve long suspected Murray Energy was involved in whipping up opposition to wind energy in Ohio, but seeing the hard evidence of that opposition is still shocking,” Demeter said.
By opposing the application to place North America’s first freshwater offshore wind farm in Ohio, “Murray Energy is grasping at straws to keep its business relevant in an era of unstoppable trends towards clean, renewable energy,” Demeter said.
Murray Energy apparently violated no laws or guidelines by financing the lawyers and consultants. Matt Schilling of the siting board said the agency relies on the Ohio Revised Code and administrative codes when deciding motions to intervene. Karpinski, said Murray Energy’s actions were deceptive, but not unlawful.
Environmental groups such as the OEC, the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club have intervened on behalf of Icebreaker, planned for 8-to-10 miles out in the lake, northwest of downtown Cleveland. Government and business supporters predict the wind farm project will create more than 500 jobs, add $168 million to the region’s economy and generate cheap green electricity for decades.
Robert Maloney and Susan Dempsey, Bratenahl residents approved as interveners, testified that they did not pay their personal attorney, John Stock of the Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff firm, in return for his representation in the siting board process. Each also testified in a sworn deposition that they were not aware Murray Energy was paying for Stock to represent them before the state board. Maloney said he thought Stock might be working pro bono.
Both said they had not read the siting board’s staff report recommending approval of the Icebreaker project, according to their depositions.
In his deposition, Maloney, the owner of a company that buys and sells petroleum products, said he’s primarily opposed to wind turbines marring his view of Lake Erie from his 11th floor condo patio located on the lakeshore.
“I didn’t want anything in Lake Erie, it’s a beautiful, pristine body of water,” Maloney said. “I’m just opposed to putting something that’s affixed in the lake that’s an industrial entity, and I’m just opposed to putting it in freshwater.”
Maloney said he had no problem with a coal company executive paying his legal bills.
“No, I’m not opposed to coal,” Maloney said. “I assume that [Murray] is against the windmills.”
Nett, the company spokesman, commended Maloney and Dempsey for standing up for Lake Erie, “a natural resource that the state holds in trust for the benefit of Ohio residents, not for the benefit of a private, for-profit subsidiary of Norwegian wind energy developer Fred Olsen Renewables.
“That for-profit entity is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for lawyers and other hired minions in its attempt to foist this wrong-headed, disastrous project on the people of Ohio,” Nett wrote.
In a September 11, 2017, letter obtained by The Plain Dealer, Richard Brown of Exponent Inc., a consultant hired to analyze the economic viability of a small wind farm such as Icebreaker, said Murray Energy was responsible for paying him $430 an hour, plus expenses. Attorney Stock, working on behalf of Murray Energy, hired Exponent for the consulting project, according to the letter.
Reaction to the revelation of Murray Energy’s anti-Icebreaker involvement came swiftly from the project’s developer.
“We are disappointed, but not entirely surprised, that big coal is secretly funding an attack on Icebreaker Wind,” said LEEDCo’s Karpinski.
Murray, a devoted supporter of President Trump, rails against former President Barak Obama in a message on the company’s web site:
“Americans must understand that the closure of 411 coal-fired power plants, over 100,000 megawatts, by the Obama Administration jeopardizes the reliability of our electric power grid and the low cost of electricity,” Murray’s statement reads.
“This destruction of our industry will hurt poor families the worst and make the manufacturing of American products less competitive in the world marketplace. Low cost electricity, a staple of our lives, is threatened.”
Other analysts have concluded that coal lost ground mostly because other sources of power became cheaper. A recent report in the American Economic Journal found that lower prices for natural gas and the rise of wind power could account for “68 percent to 100 percent of observed changes” in the use of coal. (NOTE: see page 115 of https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/pol.20150321)
According to Lazard’s 2017 Levelized Cost of Energy report, which is widely considered to be an industry benchmark, wind power tends to be cheaper than electricity generated with coal.
The levelized cost of electricity is an average lifetime price for power from a generating unit, including both capital and operating costs. Lazard says coal costs $60 to $143 per megawatt hour, compared to $30 to $60 for wind. Offshore wind power generally costs more than turbines built on dry land.
In an interview with The Plain Dealer last year, Murray said he wants to get the government out of the regulation business and has been working closely with the Trump administration to undo Obama’s “regulatory rampage” targeting coal-fired power plants.
Murray does not believe industrial society is causing climate change and hopes to convince Trump to classify carbon dioxide as harmless and to get rid of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, he told The Plain Dealer.
Murray Energy has sought greater regulation in one area: It asked the Trump Administration to compel electrical utilities to keep buying power from coal-fired plants, even if that would be more expensive for consumers.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry adopted that argument, saying that the reliability of the national electrical grid depended upon preserving plants that could store a 90-day supply of fuel on site. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously rejected his proposal in January, saying the evidence it received did not “point to any past or planned generator retirements that may be a threat to grid resilience.” (Note: See https://www.utilitydive.com/news/ferc-rejects-doe-nopr-kicking-resilience-issue-to-grid-operators/514334/, or see page 8 of the attached FERC ruling.)
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