August 10, 2018 - Trump administration officials pushed to highlight the value of coal-fired power plants in a government report on the “bomb cyclone” that plunged the Eastern U.S. into single-digit temperatures last January.
They prodded authors at one of the Energy Department’s national labs to highlight past electrical outages from natural gas-fired power and emphasize planned coal plant closures as part of the analysis, according to newly released correspondence.
The communications shed light on the extent to which coal advocates in the Energy Department worked to highlight the fossil fuel’s significance as an electricity source while building the case for a potentially unprecedented intervention in U.S. power markets to stem plant closures.
They also reveal officials gleefully anticipating the next cold snap and disparaging energy experts who didn’t agree with their coal-focused view as incompetent.
“If the weather blesses us with another cold snap and energy resources get tight, would these daily reports be useful to you again?” Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg asked more than two dozen colleagues in a Jan. 10 email.
The documents, obtained by the Sierra Club through an open records request, cover the department’s analysis of how electricity markets performed between late December and early January, when frigid temperatures spurred high power demand.
The so-called bomb cyclone caused record-low temperatures as it moved across the U.S. East Coast, driving freezing rain in Florida, dumping snow on Georgia and battering New England with hurricane-force gusts.
“The communications reveal this single-minded approach to get a certain narrative out there about the value of coal power for the grid,” said Casey Roberts, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club.
“What I think we would all hope our national labs are doing is taking an unbiased approach to looking at what the data mean for the reliability of the grid and these enormous policy changes that are being considered -- and I don’t see that here.”
The storm helped Trump administration officials bolster their argument that struggling coal and nuclear power plants are essential to national security because they produce electricity that isn’t dependent on natural gas from pipelines that can be disrupted, wind that can stop blowing or a sun that sets.
A final plan to keep plants running is still being developed amid concerns about legal and political support for government interventions that could include mandating electricity purchases and establishing a strategic reserve of vital facilities. President Donald Trump asked Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take immediate action on June 1.
By the time Winberg offered his colleagues more daily reports, analysts at the government’s National Energy Technology Laboratory were already poring over data from the deep freeze that a key department official called “very powerful information on the need for fossil fuel and coal.”
But it wasn’t enough. Office of Advanced Fossil Technology Director Angelos Kokkinos encouraged analysts to include information on coal and nuclear plants slated for closure and a breakdown of sources of electricity in regions covered by the report. He also volunteered points “we need to make” regarding the 2014 polar vortex, including that more than 55 percent of total outages during that storm were tethered to natural gas while just 26 percent were tied to coal plants.
“This highlights the need for system planners to more strongly consider generator performance during extreme weather events, particularly for natural-gas fired units.” Kokkinos said in a Jan. 8 email.
Report developers obliged Kokkinos. The final 46-page analysis included a line almost identical to the one he dictated. The report asserted that the U.S. would have suffered severe electricity shortages -- and maybe widespread blackouts during the storm -- without coal-fired power plants. And it warned that coming coal plant closures could block the U.S. from providing enough electricity during severe weather in the future.
Energy Department representatives didn’t have an immediate response.
Behind the scenes, a National Energy Technology Laboratory official involved in the analysis expressed frustration that some government officials had questioned coal’s role in keeping the lights on during the storm. Ken Kern, the report’s second author, sent at least a half dozen emails to staff members for Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia rebuking recent congressional testimony by Assistant Secretary of Energy Bruce Walker and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Kevin McIntyre.
Kern blamed “apparent bureaucratic resistance or incompetence” for Walker and McIntyre’s “glib responses” to Manchin during a Jan. 23 hearing “suggesting that coal generation was helpful but not mandatory.”
The officials either lack “desire” or aren’t “prepared to accede” to Perry’s assertions about the need to properly compensate electric generation sources for their resiliency, Kern added. FERC also may be demonstrating its resistance “to submitting to DOE authority on such matters,” Kern posited.
The Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund are still seeking other documents surrounding the Trump administration’s efforts to keep coal and nuclear power plants online. The groups filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday accusing the Energy Department of failing to provide documents on the issue response to the their Freedom of Information Act requests.