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It's Like Obama Never Left on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

It’s a story you would expect to have heard during the Obama administration.

Coal plants are closing across the country, largely because of market conditions and federal policies aimed at ending the use of coal in our country. One of these policies, the Clean Power Plan, proposed by President Obama as the United States’ principle initiative to meet the emissions targets of the Paris Climate Accords, had made it too expensive to keep coal plants open.

Wind, natural gas and, increasingly, solar energy are cleaner and becoming cheaper and more reliable. The Department of Energy, led by the administration’s token Texan, proposes spending a small amount of money to keep a few of these coal plants operational to fill the grid’s needs in times of emergency. And the regulators – appointees of the president – vote it down because they value the prospect of green energy over the certainty of coal.

But this is not a story from the Obama administration. It’s a story that is going on right now. The Department of Energy, headed by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, proposed to keep retiring coal and nuclear power plants minimally online to make the grid more resilient overall and improve its ability to respond to fires, storms, disruptions and perhaps even cyber-attacks.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC – on which three of the five members, including the chairman, are Trump appointees – did grant Perry’s general point and voted to “promptly decide whether additional Commission action is warranted to address grid resilience.”

But two of the Trump appointees – Chairman Kevin McIntyre and Robert Powelson – were pretty public in their efforts to join with the Democrats to end the rulemaking process Perry had launched.  The third Trump appointee, Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, got in line with the rest of the group once the writing was on the wall that the FERC was going to side against the administration.

McIntyre’s participation in this must be the most puzzling for the White House. He came to the commission from Jones Day, a conservative Washington D.C. law firm. Think Progress, the blog of the liberal Center for American Progress, claimed McIntyre had so many conflicts of interests from decades of representing fossil fuel companies that his swearing-in ceremony had to be delayed to give him time to unwind the relationships.

More surprisingly, Solyndra and other renewable energy crony capitalism schemes of the Obama administration were common elements of President Trump’s stump speeches, both on the campaign and since. But many of those same green energy cronies were all over the effort to scuttle this effort to keep baseload coal and nuclear plants online for use in keeping our power grid online and reliable. 

The commission was said to be persuaded by comments from eight former members, five of whom were green energy advocates or executives for whom a blow against coal is a potential boost to their businesses.  

So what was not surprising was the tone of the quotes in stories on the meeting at which the proposal was shot down.  The Trump administration-controlled commission was applauded by those who have spent the most in trying to kill coal plants across this country

“This is a good day for everyone who cares about good governance and healthy markets,” said the attorney for liberal Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. It was “a win for consumers, the free market and clean air,” said Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who now serves as UN special envoy for climate change and has directed tens of millions to environmental groups to oppose fossil fuels.

One of the recipients of Bloomberg’s largesse, the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign said “FERC’s announcement is a return to reality after months of billionaire coal and nuclear executives pressuring DOE and FERC to illegally set up bailouts for their uneconomic plants.”

People are policy. Donald Trump won the election. His representatives to the various boards and agencies should reflect the same will as the people expressed in November 2016. He has said he wants to help coal country and understands its strategic place in the US energy mix. He has said he wants to expand not just coal but all U.S. energy exploration to provide jobs, promote growth through affordable energy and assure energy independence in our increasingly volatile world.

His appointees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, unlike other agencies, are not following his lead. In fact, they are doing the bidding of his political adversaries and, in the process, leaving the nation more vulnerable to extensive energy outages.

Murray Energy, one of the nation’s leading coal producers, released a statement that read: “If it were not for the electricity generated by our nation’s coal-fired plants, and nuclear plants, we would be experiencing massive brownouts and blackouts in this country.”

That’s not true all the time. But what’s being argued here is not what happens all the time but rather what happens in emergencies. And given the U.S. has a 500-year supply of coal, it’s best to keep enough plants in operation to serve as a backbone in case the worst happens.  It is too bad that President Trump’s own nominees don’t recognize the importance of Trump’s vision.  

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