By Mike Valente
January 11, 2018 - West Virginia Congressman David McKinley says he's disappointed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's decision to reject a proposal that would have helped the coal industry.
"I think people--FERC and [people] around the country--they don't understand what we were trying to do here," Rep. McKinley (R) said over the phone from Washington, D.C.
In a unanimous decision this week, FERC decided to reject a Department of Energy proposal that would have helped prop up coal and nuclear power plants, both of which have suffered in a market largely dominated by cheap natural gas and renewable energy sources.
In September, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry asked the commission to consider a rule that would have helped subsidize struggling coal and nuclear plants.
Perry expressed concern that as coal and nuclear plants continued to shut down, the resiliency of the electric grid would be tested under severe conditions.
Rep. McKinley and supporters of the plan argued the rule would have served as an "insurance policy," strengthening the resilience of the grid in case of an emergency.
"We have a real concern, whether it's a cold snap, a terrorist attack, or something," McKinley said. "How do we protect our electric grid, so that the typical American doesn't have to worry whether or not they're going to have heat or electricity that night?"
Perry asked FERC to compensate power plants that can stockpile at least 90 days' worth of fuel on-site.
McKinley cited the 2014 Polar Vortex, which crippled electric power generation in parts of the country, as a justification for the plan.
But environmentalists and some energy policy analysts push back on that argument.
"During the Polar Vortex, it was actually the coal and gas-fired power plants that shut down that led to some near critical shortages of electricity," JIm Kotcon, chair of West Virginia's chapter of the Sierra Club, said.
Kotcon and other critics of the Department of Energy proposal say that while investigating the resiliency of grids is important, coal and nuclear plants' capacity to stockpile fuel is not the answer.
"That ability to store fuel on-site is really irrelevant to grid resiliency," Kotcon said. "We have almost never had an electric grid failure due to the lack of fuel."
In fact, Kotcon and others point out, grid failures are often due to transmission problems.
Despite FERC's ruling, McKinley says the fight is not over.
"We may have to do this legislatively, if FERC doesn't want to do it" McKinley said. "People have to understand that during this severe weather, gas is not always available."