August 22, 2017 Read More →

Plea for 2-Year Moratorium on U.S. Coal Plant Closings Lands With a Thud

Associated Press:

The Trump administration has rejected a coal industry push to win a rarely used emergency order protecting coal-fired power plants, a decision contrary to what one coal executive said the president personally promised him.

The Energy Department says it considered issuing the order sought by companies seeking relief for plants it says are overburdened by environmental regulations and market stresses. But the department ultimately ruled it was unnecessary, and the White House agreed, a spokeswoman said.

The decision is a rare example of friction between the beleaguered coal industry and the president who has vowed to save it. It also highlights a pattern emerging as the administration crafts policy: The president’s bold declarations – both public and private – are not always carried through to implementation.

President Donald Trump committed to the measure in private conversations with executives from Murray Energy Corp. and FirstEnergy Solutions Corp. after public events in July and early August, according to letters to the White House from Murray Energy and its chief executive, Robert Murray. In the letters, obtained by The Associated Press, Murray said failing to act would cause thousands of coal miners to be laid off and put the pensions of thousands more in jeopardy. One of Murray’s letters said Trump agreed and told Energy Secretary Rick Perry, “I want this done” in Murray’s presence.

The aid Murray sought from Trump involves invoking a little-known section of the U.S. Federal Power Act that allows the Energy Department to temporarily intervene when the nation’s electricity supply is threatened by an emergency, such as war or natural disaster. Among other measures, it temporarily exempts power plants from obeying environmental laws. In the past, the authority has been used sparingly, such as during the California energy crisis in 2000 and following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Obama administration never used it. The Trump administration has used it twice in seven months in narrow instances.

Murray’s company is seeking a two-year moratorium on closures of coal-fired power plants, which would be an unprecedented federal intervention in the nation’s energy markets. The company said invoking the provision under the Power Act was “the only viable mechanism” to protect the reliability of the nation’s power supply.

Murray told the White House that his key customer, Ohio-based electricity company FirstEnergy Solutions, was at immediate risk of bankruptcy. Without FirstEnergy’s plants burning his coal, Murray said his own company would be forced into “immediate bankruptcy,” triggering the layoffs of more than 6,500 miners. FirstEnergy acknowledged to the AP that bankruptcy of its power-generation business was a possibility.

Murray urged Trump to use the provision in the Federal Power Act to halt further coal plant closures by declaring an emergency in the electric power grid.

Murray’s claims raise the possibility that Trump was warned against the move by his advisers – some of whom are known to be more cautious – or that he simply made assurances to Murray to avoid immediate confrontation.

Coal has become an increasingly unattractive fuel for U.S. electricity companies, which have been retiring old boilers at a record pace. At least two dozen big coal-fired plants are scheduled to shut down in coming months as utilities transition to new steam turbines fueled by cleaner-burning natural gas made more abundant in recent years by new drilling technologies.

Other coal executives have urged similar government intervention to save their businesses. In a speech last week, the CEO of Peabody Energy Corp., the nation’s largest coal producer, also said a two-year moratorium on coal-plant closures was needed.

More: Coal CEO Expected Trump Help, but Administration Said No

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