Politics are behind a plan to prop up coal and nuclear

Discussion of a ‘grid emergency’ ignores cheaper alternatives like solar and wind.


Tom Ribe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Trump administration just sent a tsunami through America’s electrical energy world when a leaked memo revealed that it had a new plan to shovel millions of dollars to the coal and nuclear power industries.

The memo, leaked to Bloomberg News and written by a member of Trump’s National Security Council, said that the nation faced a “grid emergency” because so many coal and nuclear power plants had shut down. The memo argued that the government could simply order private utility companies to buy high-cost electric power, because “national security” concerns mandated using “fuel-secure” sources to protect national security.

A memo written by the Trump Administration calls for favoring coal and nuclear power over other industries. Here, Trump speaks at an oil refinery in North Dakota in 2017.

The memo claimed that “resources that have a secure, on-site fuel supply, including nuclear and coal fired power plants … are essential to support the nation’s defense facilities and critical energy infrastructure.” And it added that “due largely to regulatory and economic factors, too many of these fuel-secure facilities have retired prematurely. ...”

Prematurely? There is no shortage of electric power generation in the United States. The historic shift in this country toward cleaner, renewable energy is driven by national and international energy markets, not by tax breaks or government regulations. Countries around the world are investing in cheaper solar and wind power to address climate change and air pollution. One might think that free-market conservatives would be delighted to see competitive markets providing abundant, low-cost electricity from diverse sources to American consumers — all without interference from government. But apparently this case is different.

As for any threats to our national security, Vermont Law School professor Peter A. Bradford has pointed out: “We have no military crisis and no threats to our system reliability or resilience that require this drastic and expensive governmental intervention.The facts are being fixed around the desired end result.”

A political explanation seems like the real reason behind the administration’s determination to prop up coal. Trump’s staff has found a way to fulfill his campaign promise to rescue the dying coal industry, whose production has dropped 38 percent in the last decade. Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, who gave Trump $300,000 for his inauguration, presented Energy Secretary Rick Perry with an “action plan” last March that included ending pollution controls on coal plants and stopping the rapid shift toward wind and solar energy.

Perry tried to direct federal subsidies to coal, only to be blocked last September by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The leaked National Security Council memo noted that the Trump administration could use laws, such as the Federal Power Act and the Defense Production Act, to force utilities to buy high-cost power from coal and nuclear plants, though neither act has been used for these purposes before.

The memo also stated that natural gas is vulnerable to “cyber attacks” that make its supply unreliable, though record supplies of natural gas exist throughout the country. What the memo ignores is the reality that wind and solar, which make up about a quarter of power generation in this country, are abundant resources — nowhere near scarce.

Ever since horizontal drilling — fracking — transformed the oil and gas industry, this country has been producing large amounts of natural gas. Prices have dropped dramatically, and many coal-burning plants have converted to natural gas. Natural gas, however, is also a potent contributor to global climate change, and the continued flaring of methane during gas production is a significant, largely uncalculated source of pollution.

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a nonprofit that supports nuclear-free renewable energy, estimates that the coal and nuclear plant subsidies proposed in the memo could cost consumers up to $35 billion per year. Tim Judson, the group’s executive director, said, “Betting on old, increasingly uneconomical nuclear and coal power plants as a national security strategy is like gold-plating a Studebaker and calling it a tank. It could destroy the booming renewable energy industry, which is already employing more Americans than coal and nuclear combined."

At a Senate hearing on June 11, Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell characterized the proposal as nothing more than “political payback” for the coal industry, and members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission who testified agreed that there is no “grid emergency.” Citing market interference, even the American Petroleum Institute testified against subsidizing coal and nuclear power.

Trump, who apparently developed his ideas on energy policy back in the 1970s, has shown little interest in any of the major changes to America’s energy picture since then. His effort to turn back the clock to fulfill his campaign promises to coal miners and repay political contributions could throw tens of thousands of people out of work, forfeit America’s leadership in energy technology, and worsen global warming.

America’s environmental and energy future depends upon a vigorous public pushback against this wrongheaded move.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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