Earlier this month, we learned that Murray Energy, the largest privately owned coal company in the United States, has been quietly bankrolling opposition to the 20.7 megawatt (MW) Icebreaker Wind project set to be built on Lake Erie in a move that, while not illegal, has been described by those involved as deceptive.
According to documents and sworn statements filed with the Ohio Power Siting Board earlier this month by the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo), and reported on by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Murray Energy has been bankrolling anti-Icebreaker consultants as well as lawyers representing two local residents who are testifying against the project.
The Ohio Power Siting Board recommended conditional approval for the six-turbine project late last month. The project received its start back in August of 2009 when the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) was formed by the Great Lakes Energy Development Task Force (GLEDTF) in an effort to develop wind turbines in Lake Erie and “eventually to help stimulate an entire offshore freshwater wind industry in the Great Lakes.”
The Icebreaker Wind project is expected to serve as a demonstration project and will consist of six 3.45 MW wind turbines with a total capacity of 20.7 MW, located 7 miles from Cleveland. It is expected to be the first freshwater offshore wind project in North America. Construction is currently planned for the summer of 2020, with operation beginning later that year.
LEEDCo has been pushing hard for freshwater wind for several years now. Early in 2015, it published a report which projected up to 4,223 gigawatts (GW) worth of offshore freshwater wind capacity in the US — with 50 GW potentially in the waters of Lake Erie alone. This was followed almost two years later with the news of a joint partnership between LEEDCo and Fred. Olsen Renewables (FOR).
Over the course of the last year or so, and increasing over the last few months, LEEDCo has been highlighting the potential benefits of offshore wind in Lake Erie and announcing approval after approval for the development of Icebreaker.
However, at the same time as LEEDCo has been proclaiming the benefits of Icebreaker, efforts have been underway to prevent its development, and according to documents presented to the Ohio Power Siting Board by LEEDCo — and reported on by the Cleveland Plain Dealer — these efforts to prevent Icebreaker Wind’s development were being quietly paid for by Murray Energy, the largest privately owned coal company in the United States, founded and owned by Robert E. Murray.
Murray, an avowed supporter of US President Donald Trump and advocate against Obama-era regulations such as the Clean Power Plan, is currently working to convince Donald Trump that the government should get out from the regulation business, that carbon dioxide should be classified as harmless, and that industrialization is not responsible for or causing climate change. Robert E. Murray and Murray Energy are similarly not shy about their opposition to renewable energy, as highlighted by a message penned by Murray on the front page of the company’s website, which starts off by proclaiming how proud the company is “to provide low cost, reliable, and high-quality coal supplies to our electric utility customers, with safety as our top priority.”
It is somewhat unsurprising, therefore, that Murray would go to such efforts to prevent clean competition such as Icebreaker Wind.
Murray Energy had few legal avenues through which to protest the development of Icebreaker Wind, given that Murray Energy is likely a direct competitor to the $126 million Icebreaker Wind project. The Plain Dealer also explained that Murray Energy would not have been able to back the Campaign for American Affordable and Reliable Energy — a campaign which amounts to a coal lobbying group — as the Campaign has already tried and failed three times to intervene in the development of Icebreaker Wind.
What they did have, however, were two local residents willing to intervene in the process. By backing these two residents, Murray Energy was able to sneak its way into the process and cause LEEDCo endless trouble. Unfortunately for the two local residents — Robert Maloney and Susan Dempsey — a “petition to intervene from three other Cleveland residents was denied after one dropped out, and two other Bratenahl residents who intervened with Dempsey and Maloney also dropped out,” according to a LEEDCo spokesperson. Nonetheless, backing these two residents was really the only avenue Murray Energy had available to them, especially considering how much had been placed in favour of Icebreaker.
“The staff of the Ohio Power Siting Board, after an extensive 18-month review of Icebreaker Wind, recently gave a conditional approval of the project,” explained Beth A. Nagusky, Director of Sustainable Development at LEEDCo. “Hearings before the Board are scheduled for late September, after which legal briefs will be filed and we then await final approval from the Ohio Power Siting Board. The coal-funded intervention has caused us time and expense, which we assume was exactly Murray’s intent, as they know they will not prevail before the agency or in court. “
In an effort to understand exactly how and why Murray Energy has been working to oppose what would effectively be legitimate competition to their business, I decided to do some digging around.
While both responded to me for comment, only LEEDCo deigned to reply to my questions, whereas Cody E. Nett, a spokesperson for Murray Energy, simply provided the company’s “previous comment on the matter” in full and attached a letter they submitted to the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the wake of an article exposing Murray Energy’s involvement.
Beth Nagusky explained for me what information they had found and provided to the Ohio Power Siting Board:
“A September 2017 letter – uncovered by LEEDCo during the discovery process in preparation for hearings before the Ohio Power Siting Board to win regulatory approval for the Icebreaker Wind project – from Dr. Richard Brown, a consultant with Exponent hired by the law firm of Benesch Friedlander to analyze the economics of Icebreaker, clearly states that Murray Energy (a client of Benesch and the nation’s largest privately owned coal company) was the client and would be responsible for paying the consultant’s $430 per hour fee (now $450/hour). This engagement letter and the deposition of Dr. Brown have been filed with the Ohio Power Siting Board and are now on their website.”
From Murray Energy’s point of view, and according to the statement Cody Nett provided me, it seems that any opposition to Icebreaker Wind is good opposition. Cody E. Nett, a spokesperson for Murray Energy, replied to my email but preferred to simply provide the company’s “previous comment on the matter” directed towards the Plain Dealer and to point to a Letter to the Editor his boss had written to the Plain Dealer following its story.
“Murray Energy Corporation (Murray Energy) does not know the Bratenahl Residents who are standing up to protect Lake Erie for the citizens of Ohio, and it has never communicated with the Bratenahl Residents,” read Murray Energy’s previous comment. “The public record you [the Plain Dealer] reference reflects that the Bratenahl Residents are long-time residents on the shore of the Lake. They have no financial gain to be obtained by doing what is right in protecting the Lake – 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.”
What, then, was the source of local residents consternation?
According to the Plain Dealer, one of the residents in question — Robert Maloney — simply “didn’t want anything in Lake Erie,” as he put it in his own words. “It’s a beautiful, pristine body of water. 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.” The Plain Dealer noted that neither Maloney or Susan Dempsey, the other Bratenahl resident, had read the Siting Board’s staff report recommending approval of the Icebreaker project. When asked whether Maloney was against coal or with a coal company executive paying his legal bills, all he had to say was, “No, I’m not opposed to coal. I assume that [Robert E. Murray] is against the windmills.”
The concerns of Maloney and Dempsey, however, are not held by everyone. “Ms. Dempsey and Mr. Maloney cherish Lake Erie, just as we do at the OEC,” said David Miller, Director of Communications of the Ohio Environmental Council, who responded to me via email. “OEC believes we can protect our precious natural resource with proper siting that will also allow Ohio to use that natural resource to make our air cleaner by powering our state with clean energy instead of coal.”
Murray Energy’s Concerns?
Murray Energy’s opposition, on the other hand, has less to do, it seems, with the “beautiful, pristine” nature of Lake Erie and more to do with the seeming indignity of a “private, non-profit subsidiary of Norwegian wind energy developer Fred. Olsen Renewables” making inroads into Ohio. “That for-profit entity [i.e., Fred. Olsen Renewables] 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,” Cody Nett, 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.”
There is no awareness, apparently, on the part of Murray Energy, that it seems pleased to contribute its own “hundreds of thousands of dollars for lawyers and other hired minions” in its attempts to hinder this project.
Additionally, Nett and Murray Energy provided the Plain Dealer with the following list they believed the paper “should investigate and report on:”
- Since at least 2009, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has recommended to LEEDCo and Icebreaker that they conduct avian radar studies from the project site. To date – over 9 years later – those studies still have not been done.
- FWS has found that non-compliant avian risk reports written by Icebreaker’s paid consultants not only are inaccurate, but “misleading.” (10/4/17 FWS Letter to U.S. Department of Energy).
- Icebreaker’s chosen consultant has concluded that none of the avian radar methodologies that Icebreaker has considered to assess the project’s risks to birds “satisfactorily addresses” all requirements for a scientifically-sound assessment.
- FWS has concluded that all of the avian radar methodologies considered by Icebreaker have “known problems.” FWS “is concerned about a high rate of failure, resulting in collection of poor data.” (12/21/17 FWS Letter to Dr. Robert Diehl, U.S. Geological Survey).
Murray Energy, Bird Avengers?
According to Robert E. Murray’s Letter to the Editor of the Plain Dealer, “Murray Energy Corporation’s only interest in the Icebreaker Project is to get the facts out relative to the unreliability of wind power and the cost of electricity to consumers and ratepayers generated by it.” Murray also believed that the Plain Dealer’s article entitled “Big Coal joins fight against Lake Erie green energy turbines” was somehow “not as balanced as it should have been and omitted critical facts that your readers are entitled to know.”
This would seem to fly in the face of the only complaints that Murray Energy provided to the Plain Dealer and to myself regarding the former’s reporting. Specifically, it would seem that Murray Energy is, in fact, setting itself up as the next great defender of America’s avian population.
However, what of that list of complaints?
Beth Nagusky, Director of Sustainable Development at LEEDCo, took a look at those complaints for me to ascertain the validity of Murray Energy’s concerns, and the only area where Murray Energy might have struck close to the truth lies in the first point. I’ll include both it and LEEDCo’s response in full:
- Murray Energy: Since at least 2009, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has recommended to LEEDCo and Icebreaker that they conduct avian radar studies from the project site. To date – over 9 years later – those studies still have not been done.
- LEEDCo-Nagusky: An avian radar study was conducted in 2010. It was subsequently determined by the USFWS to be insufficient, and we agreed to do another radar survey during one spring and one fall bird migration season prior to construction to collect baseline data on the density and flight height of nocturnal migrants at the project site. This will be compared to radar surveys done post-construction to measure whether the wind turbines have any behavioral impact on nocturnal migrants (avoidance or attraction). This has been agreed to pursuant to our Memorandum of Understanding with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
For the rest, Murray Energy is grasping at straws, as confirmed not only by Nagusky but also the Fish and Wildlife Services.
- Murray Energry: FWS has found that non-compliant avian risk reports written by Icebreaker’s paid consultants not only are inaccurate, but “misleading.” (10/4/17 FWS Letter to U.S. Department of Energy).
- LEEDCo-Nagusky: I have reviewed the letter referenced here … and the only use of the word “misleading” by the [Fish and Wildlife Services] that I found was regarding the Draft EA’s characterization of some FWS studies, not Icebreaker’s avian risk reports.
The third point made by Murray Energy seems to simply be entirely made up, as Nagusky said that “I have no clue where this statement comes from and do not believe WEST [an environmental consulting group] has ever made it.” Murray Energy’s complaints regard the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) concerns “about a high rate of failure” in Icebreaker’s avian radar methodologies “resulting in collection of poor data” (which apparently comes from a Fish and Wildlife Services letter to Dr Robert Diehl of the US Geological Survey, dated December 21, 2017).
Beth Nagusky provided “a subsequent letter” from the USFWS to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), dated March 12, 2018, which not only concluded that “Icebreaker is not likely to adversely affect any federally listed threatened or endangered species” such as the Indiana bat, northern long-eared bat, piping plover, rufa red knot, and Kirtland’s warbler. The USFWS also concluded that both pre-construction radar monitoring proposals “have trade-offs” but that “both proposals have the potential to contribute meaningfully to migratory bird and bat exposure data for the project.”
Finally, the USFWS acknowledged that the Icebreaker project “is a relatively small-scale demonstration project … and as such has limited direct risk to migratory birds and bats.” This was backed up by a statement provided to me by the US Fish and Wildlife Services, which says:
“The US Fish and Wildlife Service works with industry across all sectors to minimize impacts to wildlife. In the case of the proposed Icebreaker wind project, we have provided recommendations for pre and post-project monitoring in order to minimize impacts to wildlife and inform future actions but we are not requiring monitoring at this site. Additionally, we agree with the US Department of Energy’s decision that the project is not likely to result in take of federally threatened or endangered species.”
Unsurprisingly, Murray Energy is likely not setting itself up as America’s greatest defender of birds, and when you look at Robert E. Murray’s Letter to the Editor, a much more likely source of concern arises:
“On average, energy generated by wind power costs electricity users $0.26 per kilowatt hour, while also receiving a 30 percent production tax credit from every tax-paying American. Natural gas generation, over the last 10 years, has cost consumers $0.15 per kilowatt hour, while coal-fired generation costs only $0.04 per kilowatt hour. Moreover, as is demonstrated daily, wind power is intermittent and only reliable if the wind blows not too fast or not too slow.”
This makes a bit more sense than its rebirth as an unlikely defender of birds, and fits with Murray Energy’s modus operandi as well.
“The OEC has long suspected that Murray Energy was behind attempts to thwart wind projects across Ohio and other parts of the midwest, but we have hard evidence in this case of that interference,” said the Ohio Environmental Council’s David Miller. “We still suspect Murray Energy is behind other attempts to halt wind projects across the state. Campaign for American Affordable and Reliable Energy (CAARE), a group whose stated mission is ‘to protect, preserve and promote America’s affordable and reliable coal-fired electricity generation,’ attempted to intervene in three previous wind cases but was denied intervention since the group objects to wind farms generally and had no connection to those projects.”
Murray Energy’s concerns regarding the financial viability of wind energy stretch the bounds of believability when you take into account the actual facts at play. One need only look at financial advisory and asset management firm Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis (Version 11, published late-2017):
Lazard’s Unsubsidized Levelized Cost of Energy Comparison
As you can see, the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) for wind ranges from a low end of only $30 per megawatt-hour (MWh) through to a high end of only $60 — which just happens to be coal’s low end, which stretches out to a high of $143/MWh. This is for onshore wind and the $113 referenced for wind “represents estimated implied midpoint of levelized cost of energy for offshore wind, assuming a capital cost range of $2.36 – $4.50 per watt.” Even if we take this figure, it still puts Icebreaker on par with coal generation.
Further, as regards Murray’s concerns that, “as is demonstrated daily, wind power is intermittent and only reliable if the wind blows not too fast or not too slow,” it’s worth noting that wind energy is now supplying over 30% of the electricity needs in four states across the US — Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota, something that could not be accomplished if that 30% was in any way unreliable.
Tom Kiernan, the CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), in testimony before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee in October of 2017, highlighted wind energy’s growing ability to provide grid reliability services. “We support the objective of maintaining a reliable and resilient grid,” said Kiernan, “which is best achieved through free and open markets, with a focus on needed reliability services – not sources – and a program to promote transmission infrastructure.”
Kiernan was subtly referring to efforts by the coal and nuclear industry, as well as their supporters in government, to essentially subsidise their industries by having the government pay them for grid reliability power. The proposal was originally put to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by Energy Secretary Rick Perry last year but was roundly condemned and eventually dismissed. However, US President Donald Trump has looked at the idea and seen a way to fulfil one of his campaign promises, namely, bring back coal jobs.
Unfortunately for the US energy industry, such a proposal could end up costing taxpayers as much as $34 billion a year, according to a report from The Brattle Group published in July.
There is no “War on Coal”
It is unsurprising, then, that Robert Murray and Murray Energy are wildly in favour of this proposal, and that Murray himself has pushed it to Trump. According to reporting published late last year, Murray wrote to Trump and informed him that his company would be forced to file for bankruptcy without direct market intervention. While the finger is often pointed at government support of renewable energy as the culprit behind the decline of coal energy, research published earlier this year by researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Colorado Boulder show that declining natural gas prices were primarily responsible for the decline in US coal used in the nation’s energy mix over the last decade.
There it is, then. Not only is there no war on coal — nor any particular war on birds. Rather, simple shifts in the dynamics of the US energy market have resulted in the country’s coal industry becoming more and more irrelevant, which has made room for renewable energy sources like wind and solar to begin to play a greater role.
Murray Energy’s fight with LEEDCo’s Icebreaker wind farm on Lake Erie is, therefore, nothing more than a company out to stay alive in a marketplace which no longer has use for it — a fight using whatever dirty tricks and dealings Murray Energy can get its sooty hands on.
 “Section 9 of the Endangered Species Act prohibits the take of endangered and threatened species. The Act defines “take” as “. . . to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” “Harm” includes significant habitat modification that actually kills or injures a listed species through impairing essential behavior such as breeding, feeding, or sheltering.” – Georgia Parham, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Midwest Region External Affairs
Author’s Note: Credit needs to go first of all to James F. McCarty at the Cleveland Plain Dealer for his original work reporting on Murray Energy’s involvement. On a separate note, the author does not claim “unbiased” reporting but does strongly claim “thorough” reporting.