Trump’s plan to ‘save’ big coal was just dealt a major blow

Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

On Monday, federal regulators rejected Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s proposal to send a lifeline to the nation’s declining coal and nuclear plants.

It was a major blow to Trump’s bid to “save” big coal and a resounding defeat for Murray Energy executive Robert Murray, who used his influence within the Trump administration to help get the measure passed.

The plan was, at least on the surface, aimed at protecting the nation’s power grid by stockpiling raw fuel.

“A diverse mix of power generation resources, including those with on-site reserves, is essential to the reliable delivery of electricity — particularly in times of supply stress such as recent natural disasters,” Perry said in a Sept. 29 press release announcing the plan.

Yet the proposed rule would have ultimately propped up coal and nuclear power plants, which have long been losing out to more renewable sources. It would have also subsidized the coal industry to the tune of a billion dollars.

Unlike solar, wind and natural gas, coal can be physically stockpiled in a warehouse for use in coal-fueled energy plants. Trump mega-donor Murray used that fact to try to convince the Trump administration that coal — a more reliable option, in his estimation — must be saved.

Murray outlined his “Action Plan” for Trump’s coal-friendly energy policy in a memo dated March 1, which was later obtained by the New York Times.

Murray’s five-page memo reads like the Trump administration’s 2017 to-do list of pro-coal policy, the New York Times notes. Along with calling for Trump to exit the Paris Accord and roll back Obama’s Clean Energy Plan, Murray also lamented that coal-power plants were being pushed out of operation, and claimed that windmills and solar panels “are unreliable and only available if the wind blows or the sun shines.” (This is a huge oversimplification of how wind and solar actually work; there are plenty of ways to deal with the challenges of their intermittent power production.)

Murray pushed this same agenda when he met with Perry in person on March 29.

Not surprisingly, the same logic employed by coal lobbyist Murray just so happened to be the centerpiece of Perry’s plan, called the Grid Resiliency Rules proposal. Perry’s proposal argued that coal and nuclear plants must not be retired “prematurely” because their fuel sources could be warehoused to use in an emergency, thus making the power grid more resilient.

Perry’s plan fizzled, however; clean energy companies and energy insiders quickly pointed out there was “no basis” for Perry’s proposal and noted the real issue with resiliency was transmission lines, not lack of stockpiles. Others pointed out the only real winners of the proposal would have been coal barons and plant owners, like Murray and his big coal cronies.

“Rick Perry’s scheme to prop up aging nuclear and dirty coal plants was never about making sure the lights and heat stayed on,” John Moore, an energy policy expert for the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted. “It was about protecting the bank accounts of plant owners at the expense of everyday Americans.”

The five-member Republican-controlled Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) likewise could not be convinced, even though many of them were Trump appointees.

Their Monday vote killed the measure for good. It was a vote of confidence for renewable energy, and yet another nail in the coffin for big coal.

“There is no evidence in the record to suggest that temporarily delaying the retirement of uncompetitive coal and nuclear generators would meaningfully improve the resilience of the grid,” Commissioner Richard Glick wrote about the decision. “Rather, the record demonstrates that, if a threat to grid resilience exists, the threat lies mostly with the transmission and distribution systems, where virtually all significant disruptions occur.”

Murray responded to the commission’s decision by calling it a “cop out” which will hurt energy consumers.

Murray claimed in a press release that the decision will “raise the cost of electricity for all Americans, including those on fixed incomes, single mothers, and manufacturers of products for the global marketplace.” He didn’t fully explain the basis for those claims.

West Virginia Congressman David McKinley, an ardent coal supporter, agreed with Murray.

“I think people — FERC and [people] around the country — they don’t understand what we were trying to do here,” McKinley told WDTV over the phone.

The failure of the measure will no doubt cost West Virginia’s declining coal industry. Any boost, even one that would have primarily benefited the coal operators like Murray, would have been seen as a win in coal country desperate to keep as many mines open as possible at any cost.

Yet on the national scale, the real loser was President Donald Trump.

The Republican-led commission’s decision deals a serious blow to one of Trump’s favorite claims about the Mountain State.

Trump is not, as he promised, “saving” coal — and the FERC’s decision is just further proof that no one can.