On March 29, 2017, Robert Murray, the founder and owner of one of the country’s largest coal companies, was ushered into a conference room at the Department of Energy’s headquarters, in Washington, D.C., for a meeting with Secretary Rick Perry. When Perry arrived, a few moments later, he immediately gave Murray a hug. To Simon Edelman, the Department’s chief creative officer, who was on hand to photograph the event, the greeting came as a surprise. At the time, Edelman did not know that Murray’s political-action committee and employees had donated more than a hundred thousand dollars to Perry’s Presidential campaign, in 2012, and almost as much to Donald Trump’s, in 2016. Nevertheless, Edelman told me recently, “this Spidey sense went off.” He captured a photo of the embrace, then lingered for fifteen minutes after the men sat down. “Murray did most of the talking,” he said. At one point, the coal magnate handed Perry a document containing his “Action Plan for reliable and low cost electricity in America and to assist in the survival of our Country’s coal industry.” Edelman snapped a closeup. Afterward, he said, he heard Perry tell Murray, “I think we can help you with this.”
Six months later, on September 28th, Perry sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, directing it to issue a new “rule to protect the resiliency of the electric grid.” The nation, Perry argued, was too vulnerable to power disruptions “caused by natural and man-made disasters,” and the best way to make the grid more reliable was to emphasize “traditional baseload generation”—in other words, coal and nuclear. Perry proposed that all coal plants in certain areas, including many that do business with Murray Energy, be required to keep a ninety-day supply of coal onsite to provide “fuel-secure” power. Edelman was alarmed: the language in Perry’s letter clearly echoed Murray’s “action plan.” Moreover, only a month earlier, a report by Perry’s own staff had concluded that “reliability is adequate today,” raising the question of why the rule was necessary. (A spokesman for Murray told me that he “had no prior notice of this rulemaking and was not involved in drafting the rule.”) In late November, not long before ferc was scheduled to vote on Perry’s plan, Edelman shared his photos of the March meeting with reporters from the progressive magazine In These Times and, later, the Washington Post. The photographs were published on December 6th. The next day, Edelman was placed on administrative leave.