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Secretary of Energy Rick Perry speaks during a White House daily briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House June 27, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Critics on Guard Against Pro-Coal Agenda Even as Rick Perry's Bailout Plan Proves 'Too Far a Stretch Even for Trump White House'

With "coal- and nuclear-bailout ringleader" nominated to FERC, groups warn that Trump's desire to scam public and ratepayers likely to continue

Jessica Corbett

While warning of ongoing efforts to bolster polluting industries, environmental and anti-nuclear activists are cautiously welcoming reports that President Donald Trump's latest ploy to bail out the money-losing coal and nuclear power industries has stalled due to lack of support within the administration.

"Whether it's a dictator who says he didn't interfere in our elections or that global warming will fix itself, this president will believe almost anything he's told," noted Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook. "But this scheme to bail out the dying coal industry on the backs of ratepayers was too far a stretch even for the Trump White House."

Citing four unnamed sources with knowledge of the discussion, Politico reported late Monday that "the White House has shelved the plan amid opposition from the president's own advisers on the National Security Council and National Economic Council."

Another anonymous official told E&E News that "efforts to ensure resilience of the grid continue" even as the "poorly articulated policy" put forth by the Department of Energy (DOE) under the direction of Secretary Rick Perry "flounders," failing to win over the president's top economic advisers.

A DOE memo detailing the plan leaked to the press in May. According to the draft proposal, officials were considering using emergency authority under federal law to force grid operators to buy electricity from at-risk coal and nuclear facilities in order to help them avoid shutdowns. The proposal claimed such a move was necessary for energy independence and homeland security.

The memo came after Perry, in January, struck out with a previous "ludicrous" plan that would have forced taxpayers and ratepayers to subsidize the coal and nuclear industries under the guise of safeguarding the nation's power grid. While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is dominated by Trump appointees, they unanimously rejected it. That plan had followed a DOE-commissioned study last year that critics denounced as an effort to "justify bailing out" the coal and nuclear industries.

Coal and nuclear facilities across the U.S. are struggling to compete with cheaper energy sources—from cheaper fossil fuels like oil and gas to renewable options like wind and solar. While the recent reports suggest it is unlikely that Trump's hopes of putting these failing facilities on federal life support will be realized, activists are still urging the public to remain vigilant and warning of other threats such as privatized regional markets.

Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's Energy Program pointed out that, in June, one privatized regional market "received a green light from a bitterly divided [FERC] to bail out uneconomic generation by forcing higher bidding costs for renewable energy." In other words, he explained, "the privatized market operators, susceptible to undue influence by their powerful coal, gas, and nuclear members, are actively attacking cheap renewables through complex market redesigns."

"Right now, FERC probably is handcuffed from finalizing the approval of any market bailout, as the commission is deadlocked 2-2," Slocum noted, but the commission could soon shift back to a makeup that favors the president's overt coal-friendly agenda. Trump just selected "coal- and nuclear-bailout ringleader" Bernard McNamee for the open slot—likely because of "his reliable pro-coal background," which includes serving under Perry at DOE as well as at the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation.

"If confirmed, McNamee would be the most overtly political person to serve on FERC in decades," E&E reported when his nomination was announced earlier this month. Additionally, "he has no experience in the electric or natural gas utility industry or as a regulator of those sectors." McNamee's appointment is subject to Senate approval.

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