Trump sets out to save coal industry

The Trump administration has put forth new energy proposals that seek to save struggling coal and nuclear power plants by forcing utilities to purchase energy from these economically faltering companies. John Dyer reports from Boston.

President Trump’s proposal to force utilities to buy electricity from coal and nuclear power plants would likely face legal opposition. (Image credit: Greg Goebel via Flickr)

American president Donald Trump is considering forcing electricity utilities in the United States to purchase energy from struggling coal and nuclear power plants under a new proposal.

“Impending retirements of fuel-secure power facilities are leading to a rapid depletion of a critical part of our nation’s energy mix and impacting the resilience of our power grid,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement earlier this month.

Sanders said U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry was now considering requiring utilities to buy coal and nuclear for two years under laws usually invoked after natural disasters or during national security threats. During that time, federal officials would study the resiliency of the American grid’s power supply.

Numerous power plants are closing down

It’s not clear if and when Trump will make the proposal official, but the White House has been concerned about the potential drop-off in capacity since Trump assumed office.

At least 25 coal-fired plants have closed since January 2017, mostly due to competition from solar and wind power, according to the Sierra Club. Bloomberg reported that a similar number of nuclear power plants are scheduled to close in the next three years.

At the same time, the proposals also demonstrate how the coal and nuclear industries wield significant influence over the Trump administration.

In September, Perry asked regulators to guarantee financial returns for coal and nuclear plants that could stock 90 days’ worth of fuel. After an outcry from competing energy producers, Republican free marketeers and Democratic critics, the regulators rejected Perry’s request.

Coal company drafted the proposal

On Wednesday, reports revealed that coal tycoon Robert Murray drafted the proposal to force utilities to use coal and nuclear energy in March 2017. The reports cited internal Energy Department documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests.

Chief executive of Murray Energy Corporation, which owns and operates coal mines, Murray also asked Perry to lobby to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate change accord, use taxpayer dollars to bolster failing coal company pension funds, and eliminate rules that bar energy plants from releasing toxic metals into waterways.

Criticism from all sides

Murray and Trump’s recent proposals have sparked an extraordinary backlash from the oil, natural gas, wind and solar energy industries.

“The Administration’s draft plan to provide government assistance to those coal and nuclear power plants that are struggling to be profitable under the guise of national security would be unprecedented and misguided,” said Todd Snitchler, director of the American Petroleum Institute Market Development Group, the biggest oil and gas lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

In the same statement, Solar Energy Industries Association Vice President for Federal Affairs Christopher Mansour also blasted the idea.

“A policy to spend billions of dollars keeping uneconomic power plants afloat, while trying to put clean and affordable solar on the sidelines, is not a recipe for economic success,” said Mansour.

Possible lawsuits

Conservatives expressed disbelief that Trump was considering what amount to subsidies and government protection for declining businesses.

“If you can find anyone who’s market-oriented or says they’re conservative and supports this, they should turn in their badge,” said Peter Van Doren, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank that advocates for free market principles.

If Trump invoked national security and natural disaster emergency laws, he would immediately face lawsuits to forestall his actions, legal experts said.

“The idea of superseding the market for a full two years and directing that purchases be made from specific plants is well beyond any existing use of these statutory powers,” University of Richmond Joel Eisen told the New York Times.

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