THE LIGHTBULB

A major coal miner pension fund is in jeopardy after the country’s largest private coal-mining company filed for bankruptcy last week.

But the nearly 90,000 retired coal miners who are on the verge of losing their benefits next year just got an unlikely savior: Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The Senate majority leader joined a bipartisan group of senators to introduce a bill meant to shore up the coal miners’ pension payments. He did so after months of stopping similar legislation from coming up for a vote.

“I’ve spent my entire career in the Senate fighting for all Kentuckians,” McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday. “I’ve worked to protect coal communities from bad ideas and to promote their future. And I will keep working with the Trump administration and with my colleagues on both sides to support our mining families.”

The turnaround comes after a series of bankruptcies by coal-mining firms put the already imperiled finances of the United Mine Workers of America pension plan in an even more fragile state.

The coal miners’ union, which lobbied McConnell’s office for years to save the pension plan, hailed the endorsement from the senator from Kentucky as a breakthrough.

“It’s certainly a tremendous development,” said Phil Smith, director for communications and governmental affairs for the UMWA.

The latest coal company likely aiming to shed its pension obligations through bankruptcy is Murray Energy, the private coal company owned by Bob Murray, a major donor to President Trump. The firm filed for Chapter 11 protection last week.

McConnell’s bill would take money from a fund used to reclaim old mines to help fund the pension plan. The legislation also ensures miners working for recently bankrupt coal companies do not lose health-care coverage.

The legislation is sponsored by two fellow coal-state Republicans, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Rob Portman of Ohio. 

It is also endorsed by a number of Democrats, including Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), who for months criticized McConnell for not bringing up a pension-saving bill. 

“This is not a solution that can be held off any longer and we must act now,” Manchin said in a statement.

One unresolved issue is the fate of a medical fund covering those ex-miners afflicted with a disease called black lung. Manchin’s version of a coal miners’ bill would have increased taxes on coal production to fund the program, but McConnell's legislation does not address the black lung fund.

Another open question is when the bill would actually be brought up for a vote. McConnell’s office declined to give a timeline. He probably won’t have the entire GOP caucus behind him. A number of Republican senators, such as Mike Enzi of Wyoming, have opposed putting federal funding toward the pension plan.

Still, the coal miners’ union is confident the bill can get the 60 votes it needs in the Senate to overcome the threat of a filibuster.

“There are other Republicans who will support the legislation,” Smith said.

POWER PLAYS

— Add another to the list of 2020 candidates: Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is preparing to enter the Democratic presidential primary race, months after saying he would not run, The Post reports.

  • Why now? “We now need to finish the job and ensure that Trump is defeated,” Howard Wolfson, a top adviser to Bloomberg, told The Post's Matt Viser and Michael Scherer. “But Mike is increasingly concerned that the current field of candidates is not well positioned to do that.”
  • An advocate for climate causes: Bloomberg has been a strong advocate for climate action. In fact, when he announced in March that he decided not to run for president, The Post’s Michael Scherer wrote his advisers said he decided he'd be able to accomplish more through political activism and philanthropic work, including on climate issues. In April, he announced a $5.5 million pledge to the United Nation’s climate program. In June, he pledged $500 million to accelerate the closure of the nation’s coal-fired power plants.

— Mr. Gates goes to Washington: In other billionaire news, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates came to Congress Thursday in the midst of a public sparing match with one of its members, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), over her wealth tax proposal. But he wasn't there to talk wealth inequality per se. He instead met with Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.), the founders of the Senate Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, to talk about addressing climate change and reducing emissions through agriculture and reforestation, according to a release from Coons's office. 

— Commerce Department aides knew Alabama hurricane forecasters were not responding to Trump: New documents released via public records request show the tweet from the agency’s Birmingham, Ala., division that declared Hurricane Dorian would not hit the state was not meant to contradict Trump. Forecasters were “responding to an influx of calls from worried residents and not to an earlier tweet from Trump,” The Post’s Jason Samenow and Andrew Freedman report. “Julie Kay Roberts, NOAA’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, was told on Sept. 2 about the motivation behind a tweet." 

  • But they still rebuked them anways: “Senior aides at the Commerce Department forced the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to publicly rebuke its weather forecasters in Birmingham, Ala., for contradicting President Trump’s comments about the threat Hurricane Dorian posed to that state, even after NOAA informed them that the agency’s meteorologists were not aware at the time they were contradicting the president,” Samenow and Freedman report. “… Knowing that the forecasters had no political motivations, [acting NOAA head Neil Jacobs] and Roberts tried but failed to block the paragraph admonishing them, which originated from the Commerce Department.”

— EPA officials are in a standoff with the agency’s watchdog: EPA officials have pushed back on accusations from the Office of the Inspector General that EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson has refused to comply with requests for information in ongoing audit and investigations related to his actions.

  • The tit-for-tat: In a letter released this week, Inspector General Charles J. Sheehan wrote: “To countenance open defiance even in one instance — much less two, both by a senior official setting precedent for himself and all agency staff — is ruinous.” In a letter to EPA chief Andrew Wheeler, Jackson wrote: “I have neither delayed nor refused to fully cooperate with EPA’s Inspector General.”
  • Why the standoff is notable: “The dispute, which involves two different probes, has escalated to a level not seen in at least six years,” The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports. “One former senior EPA official said that while the office has threatened to notify Congress about disputes multiple times in the past, ‘generally, cooler heads prevailed before that point.’”

What does the IG want to know about Jackson anyways: The agency’s inspector general is looking into whether the EPA chief of staff was involved in destroying internal documents, Politico reports. “The IG's office is asking witnesses whether Jackson has routinely destroyed politically sensitive documents, including schedules and letters from people like lobbyist Richard Smotkin, who helped arrange a trip for then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to Morocco when he was in office, according to one of the sources, a former administration official who told investigators he has seen Jackson do that firsthand,” per the report. Jackson told Politico he was “unaware” of the investigation.

Meanwhile, there's an EPA-vs.-House fight brewing: The EPA had a Tuesday deadline to respond to a request for documents from the House Science, Space and Technology Committee related to a chemical program. But the committee says while the agency provided documents, they were “non-responsive,” which could set the stage for a subpoena fight, the Hill reports.

— It’s official: President Trump formally nominated Dan Brouillette, the deputy energy secretary, to replace outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry. “Dan has faithfully served as my Deputy, helping to advance American energy and position the United States as a world energy leader,” Perry said in a statement. “I fully endorse President Trump’s decision to nominate him and urge the U.S. Senate to confirm him.” Perry is set to leave his post Dec. 1.

— Closing arguments in Exxon’s landmark trial: The oil and gas giant’s attorney argued in court that the case, which alleges Exxon deceived investors about the financial risks of climate change, was “meritless.” “The case is almost a joke,” Theodore Wells said, according to Reuters. “But it’s a cruel joke, your honor, because the reputations of a lot of people have been hurt and disparaged by the bringing of the complaint.” Meanwhile, lawyer for New York State Jonathan Zweig said the case “isn’t whether Exxon employees are good people or even were trying their best … The question in this case is whether Exxon’s disclosures were accurate, and the evidence shows they were not.”

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States holds a legislative hearing on Nov. 13.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— Coming soon: Actor Mark Ruffalo will speak at an event hosted by The Washington Post about his film “Dark Waters” that centers on an attorney, Rob Bilott, who fought chemical company DuPont over water contamination in West Virginia. Sign up here for a live-stream notification for the Nov. 19 event. Bilott is also scheduled to join Ruffalo at the event.