By Jason Hopkins
June 8, 2018 - President Donald Trump’s emergency directive will help both coal and nuclear plants, but his biggest concern is the health of the coal industry.
The White House is moving forward with a federal intervention plan to save a series of nuclear and coal plants that are at risk of early retirement. The move comes as both power sources have faced economic hardship as they face stiff competition from cheaper, cleaner natural gas and a growing renewables industry. Numerous plants have already closed across the U.S. and more are facing the same fate unless the energy market changes.
The plan throws a lifeline to both coal and nuclear; however, Trump’s true love lies with King Coal, according to an Axios report. Such an attitude meshes well with then-candidate Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail. The Republican had pledged during the 2016 election to breathe life back into the coal industry, which was slapped with onerous environmental regulations during the Obama administration. Trump entered office and promptly slashed a litany of rules and regulations — much to the benefit of the coal sector.
The White House plan follows intense lobbying from coal and nuclear officials who begged for government intervention. Bob Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy and a Trump ally, has been vocal about supporting “all efforts to ensure the security of our nation’s electric power supply.” FirstEnergy, an energy company that owns several uneconomical plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, previously requested that the government wield emergency authority to save its facilities.
Under the rescue plan, the Department of Energy will implement the Defense Production Act and section 202 of the Federal Powers Act to mandate grid operators purchase electricity from a list of at-risk plants. The mandate will last for two years while the DOE examines the vulnerabilities of the U.S. energy delivery systems.
Trump’s plan has been met mostly with derision from the media and industries not directly benefiting from it. The Washington Post editorial board on Tuesday called it “positively socialist.” Their position on coal was made clear when they went on to argue that “there is no case for saving coal, an exceptionally dirty power source that should be retired as soon as possible.” They weren’t the only ones to frame the directive in collectivist terms.
“What Trump’s doing is going back to a Soviet-style system,” former Democratic Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff said to Utility Dive in an article published Monday. “This will blow the market up.”
There are those, however, outside of White House and coal and nuclear circles that have been optimistic. Environmentalist activist Michael Shellenberger said Trump’s plan could ultimately reduce carbon emissions. Shellenberger, who was recently defeated in his bid to be the next Democratic governor of California, has been an ardent supporter of nuclear, arguing that it is a monumental source of emissions-free electricity.
“What if Trump’s policy bailing out coal and nuclear plants actually result in fewer emissions than letting them close and be replaced by natural gas?” the climate activist wrote in Forbes Wednesday, noting that the plan would save nuclear plants while not necessarily keeping coal plants running longer. The end result, he claimed, could mean a reduction of U.S. emissions intended from the Paris climate accord. “But whatever courts or future presidents do, the nuclear bail-out could prove to be — however ironic and unintended — the key to meeting the commitments President [Barack] Obama made to reduce carbon emissions in Paris.”
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