The Tennessee Valley Authority announced Thursday that it would close two coal plants, including one that buys its fuel from one of Donald Trump's campaign contributors, despite public pressure from the president to keep it open.
In a 5-2 vote, the public utility's board of directors chose to shutter Kentucky's Paradise Fossil plant in 2020 and Tennessee's Bull Run plant in 2023. The Kentucky plant buys much of its fuel from Murray Energy, which is owned by Robert Murray, a generous supporter of Trump. The two dissenting votes came from Trump administration appointees.
The board met Thursday to discuss the potential shuttering of the plants that are 50 years old after a series of TVA assessments deemed them to be obsolescent and wasteful of energy. The independent federal agency said earlier in the week that the facilities produced a steady, inflexible amount of power and could not bend to “the increased volatility in energy consumption” of its customer base.
“Making decisions that impact employees and communities is difficult as we fulfill our commitment to keep power rates as low as possible,” TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson said. “We value the contributions of the employees of Paradise and Bull Run, and we will be working directly with them and local communities to ease the transition as much as possible.”
The president entered the fray over the potential closure Monday, stating on Twitter that the TVA needed to “give serious consideration to all factors before voting to close viable power plants, like Paradise #3 in Kentucky.”
Coal is an important part of our electricity generation mix and @TVAnews should give serious consideration to all factors before voting to close viable power plants, like Paradise #3 in Kentucky!
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Murray is a prolific donor to Republican causes through the Murray Energy Corporation Political Action Committee. The group donated almost $350,000 in the 2016 election, including $100,000 to the Trump Victory Super PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Murray Energy said in an email earlier this week that its chairman "did not have any contact with President Trump or anyone in his administration on this issue."
In a statement Thursday, Murray said that his company is "extremely disappointed in the TVA board decision."
"We have 690 employees in the vicinity of the plant," he said. "Further, every coal mining job, according to university studies, results in up to 11 additional jobs in our communities. This is up to 7,500 jobs in West Kentucky that could be affected.”
Neither he nor the company immediately clarified whether those employees faced losing their jobs because of the decision.
The White House declined to comment Thursday.
In an environmental assessment draft in November, the TVA estimated that there would be a direct loss of 231 jobs between the two plants, which they could reassign, but that would not account for employment at the coal mines that provide it the fuel.
After its vote, the TVA said it was committed to working with the affected employees and communities.
“Obviously every facility, every community is unique in its needs,” Jim Hopson, TVA's public information officer, said. “We will be spending the next several weeks and months working with the affected employees as well as community leaders to learn how best to mitigate the effects of this decision.”
Hopson said that some employees may elect to retire, others could be moved to other facilities — which would likely require them to leave their communities — and still others may be offered “incentives” to pursue other opportunities.
As for the affected communities, he said that the TVA would try to redevelop the two properties into other viable revenue streams. He noted that the agency had previously found success by attracting Google to refurbish a TVA-retired coal facility in North Alabama into a data center.
About 39 percent of coal-mining jobs have disappeared over the past 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accounting for tens of thousands of lost jobs in largely rural communities.
Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., told NBC News prior to the decision that the TVA should maintain a “diverse portfolio.”
The congressman, who represents the district in Kentucky that would be affected by the plant's closure, noted that coal once made up half of the utility's resources. It is now less than a quarter.
“If you look at the future, no one knows what the future holds. Now natural gas is cheap, but no one knows what the price of natural gas is in the future," Comer said. "I fear completely abandoning coal when coal is still going to be a reliable, affordable, clean source of energy in the future.”
Phil McCausland is an NBC News reporter focused on the rural-urban divide.