Published: Mon, June 04, 2018
Science | By Joan Schultz

Trump orders Energy Department to help ailing coal, nuclear plants

Trump orders Energy Department to help ailing coal, nuclear plants

The draft memo laying out the directive doesn't give a specific amount operators would have to spend but says it will be enough to keep the facilities open for the next two years, saying that USA national security "relies on a robust US domestic industrial base, of which the coal, nuclear, and oil and natural gas industries are critical strategic components".

Under a preliminary plan, first reported by Bloomberg Friday, the Energy Department could use its emergency power under two federal laws to require utilities to buy some of their power from coal and nuclear-powered plants that are threatened with closure.

The idea of declaring an emergency under the Defense Production Act of 1950 (used by President Harry Truman for the steel industry) and section 202 of the Federal Power Act has been promoted by the chief executives of the coal mining firm Murray Energy and OH utility First Energy, both of whom have contributed heavily to President Trump's political activities.

The EIA also reports that almost all power plants that retired between 2008 and 2017 were fossil fuel plants and that most plants that plan to close before 2020 use coal or natural gas.

According to Bloomberg, the move would signal an unprecedented intervention in the USA energy industry.

Both Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Rep. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., have been encouraging Trump to use his power under the Defense Production Act and the Federal Power Act to protect power plants already investing in emissions control.

"Our nation must recognize the important role that coal and other traditional power sources play in rules created to make the national energy infrastructure stable and resilient. President Trump has directed Secretary of Energy Rick Perry to prepare immediate steps to stop the loss of these resources, and looks forward to his recommendations", White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says in the statement.

There is no environmental argument for keeping open coal plants, which are the most carbon-intensive form of power.

The DoE memo suggests that United States energy grid operators could be compelled to purchase power from a pre-approved list over a two-year period, "to forestall any future actions toward retirement, decommissioning or deactivation", according to Ars Technica. The move would be one of the most direct efforts by Trump to make good on campaign promises to revive the nation's shrinking coal industry. According to Bloomberg, the memo added that these coal and nuclear plants are being replaced by natural gas and renewable power generation that is not secure or resilient.

The shale gas boom and inexorable rise of wind and solar power are indeed having a profound impact on the United States electricity system, with natural gas recently edging out coal as the largest source of USA power generation.

Depending on the approach taken by the Trump administration, propping up coal and nuclear plants could cost the taxpayers anywhere from $311 million to $11.8 billion per year.

In January the Republican-led Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) rejected a different proposal from Perry that sought to pay coal and nuclear plants for their resiliency and reliability services.

The proposal could have a big impact on PJM Interconnection, the country's largest electric grid, which covers Pennsylvania and much of the mid-Atlantic.

"This finality is why it is critically important to preserve the fuel security offered by nuclear plants under threat of premature closure", Korsnick said.

As Bloomberg noted, there is no guarantee the president would sign off on the directive, but the White House did issue a statement on Friday saying it was weighing different options to keep America's energy grid "strong".

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