Behind the Coal Industry’s Trump-Era Lobbying War

WASHINGTON — The story of Navajo Generating Station in rural Arizona, in a way, is a story about the United States: the extraordinary coal-fueled expansion of the country after World War II, the continued extraction of natural resources from Native American lands and then the rapid move in recent years away from coal to natural gas and renewable energy.

The way many of the now-unemployed coal miners in Arizona see it, it is also a story of a Republican president who made a promise and then failed to honor it.

Documents obtained by The New York Times and a number of environmental groups offer a detailed history of this immense public works project, from its birth in the early 1960s through the fight over its fate during the Trump administration, including the repeated interventions by coal industry lobbyists as they tried to keep the plant in business.

Let’s take a look at a few of the key documents.

N.G.S., as the plant is known, was born of a compromise that helped give rise to the modern environmental movement in the United States. The Sierra Club, which more recently played a role in forcing the shutdown of the power plant, was also largely responsible for the fact that the Navajo Generating Station was built in the first place.

In the early 1960s, the Interior Department, needing a major new source of electric power in the West, had proposed building a huge dam near the entrance to the Grand Canyon. The Sierra Club led a campaign to stop the initiative, signaling its emergence in the United States as a major political player. Congress responded to the protests by blocking the proposed dam. As an alternative, the Interior Department abandoned its focus on hydroelectric power and instead turned to coal and construction of the Navajo Generating Station to meet the region’s growing energy needs.

Here is an advertisement Sierra Club ran in 1966 in The Times as it sought to halt the dam.

The Navajo Generating Station started producing power in 1974, and once all three of its coal-burning units were open, it became the largest coal-burning power plant in the West, sending electricity to cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

But by the time Donald J. Trump was elected, the plant’s primary owner, a utility called Salt River Project, had decided it no longer wanted to keep it running, since it could buy power more cheaply elsewhere.

Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, as well as miners who worked at its Kayenta mine that fueled N.G.S., rallied to block the closing, and they found a critical ally in the Trump administration.

Just days before Mr. Trump was sworn in, Peabody Energy wrote a letter to the plant owners, which included the Interior Department, offering to cut the price of the coal it sold to N.G.S. in return for an agreement that the plant keep burning coal. Peabody also announced that it was hiring Lazard, a financial adviser, to help find a new buyer for the plant, after its main owner, the Salt River Project, announced it wanted to shut down the plant. Peabody argued that with this lower-priced coal, the plant could compete against natural gas.

Peabody’s lobbyists — including Scott Mason, who had worked on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign — and other top Peabody executives visited the Interior Department less than two weeks after Mr. Trump was sworn in to discuss the role the department could play in helping save the N.G.S. plant and Kayenta coal mine. Here is a note sent after that meeting.

Peabody’s lead lobbyist, Ray Shepherd, moved quickly to push the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency to find a way to repeal or revise a 2014 Obama-era ruling that effectively mandated that N.G.S. shut down one of its three coal-burning units and then spend as much as $1 billion to reduce the amount of toxic nitrous oxide released from the others.

At first, Mr. Shepherd suggested to Scott Cameron, a top political appointee who then supervised the Bureau of Reclamation, citing an executive order Mr. Trump had just signed that instructed federal agencies to find ways to reduce regulatory costs, that the E.P.A. should simply rescind the Obama-era rule entirely, even though it had been enacted to reduce haze at the Grand Canyon and other national parks.

A few months later, Peabody Energy was also pushing this idea with the E.P.A., as shown in this email to Mandy Gunasekara, who now serves as the agency’s chief of staff.

By late 2017, Peabody Energy and its financial adviser, Lazard, had settled on a detailed list of requests they wanted the Trump administration to deliver on in the effort to keep the N.G.S. power plant open and burning coal.

Here is that list, which included what Peabody called “Alternative B.” The requests would allow the power plant to keep burning coal without having to spend $1 billion on the air pollution upgrade, which Peabody had been pushing for since the start. They also called for the federal government to pressure Arizona officials to continue buying power from the plant, run by the Salt River Project, or S.R.P.

Scott Pruitt, then the chief of the E.P.A., soon followed up with the letter that Peabody Coal wanted, confirming that the plant did not have to install an advanced new air-pollution control system if it was sold to new owners. This was an alternative that had been part of the original 2014 rule, but the agency had assumed during the Obama administration that the air pollution upgrade would happen. Dropping that upgrade was now seen as a way to rescue the power plant.

The Interior Department followed up on Peabody’s wish list by writing a threatening letter to the Arizona government agency that for decades had bought electricity from the N.G.S. plant. It was trying to force it to continue to do so, even though the Arizona agency had concluded it could save tens of millions of dollars by buying the power elsewhere.

The fight to save the Navajo Generating Station was just one of several major battles the administration initiated to try to prop up the coal industry in the United States. In Senator Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, there was a similar fight over the Paradise Fossil Plant, owned by the federal government’s Tennessee Valley Authority, which was also considering shutting it down. When it first opened in 1963, Paradise had the largest coal-burning units in the world. In December 2018, Mr. McConnell, the majority leader, tried to pressure the T.V.A. to keep the plant burning coal, as did Mr. Trump in early 2019.

Mr. McConnell and Mr. Trump were certainly not alone in their efforts to keep these coal-burning power plants running. Many residents, coal miners and employees at the plants joined the campaigns, including this sixth-grade English teacher, who wrote an email to the T.V.A. urging it not to shut down the coal plant. Despite these appeals and the pressure from Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell, the T.V.A. still moved to close the plant, concluding that doing so would save its 10 million ratepayers tens of millions of dollars.

With the plugs pulled at both the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona and the Paradise Fossil Plant in Kentucky, the end came quickly for the coal mines that had long fueled them. Here is the layoff notice sent the day after Christmas last year, as Murray Energy’s Western Kentucky Coal announced it would close the Genesis Mine, which helped fuel Paradise. Coal production in the United States has dropped by a third since Mr. Trump was sworn in, the largest decline since the 1920s, despite the extensive lobbying effort.