Mon | Dec 18, 2017

Trump administration rebuffs coal

Published:Wednesday | August 23, 2017 | 12:00 AM
In this June 7, 2017 file photo, a coal barge is positioned as a backdrop behind President Donald Trump as he speaks during a rally at the Rivertowne Marina in Cincinnati. President Donald Trump personally promised to activate emergency legal authorities to keep dirty or economically uncompetitive coal plants from shutting down, a top American coal company said.

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 US Energy Department says it considered issuing the order sought by companies seeking relief for plants it says are overburdened by environ-mental 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 White House declined to comment on Murray's assertion. A spokesman for Murray Energy, Gary Broadbent, also declined to comment on the letters.

Energy Department spokes-woman Shaylyn Hynes said the agency was sympathetic to the coal industry's plight.

"We look at the facts of each issue and consider the authorities we have to address them, but with respect to this particular case at this particular time, the White House and the Department of Energy are in agreement that the evidence does not warrant the use of this emergency authority," Hynes said in a statement Sunday.

The aid Murray sought from Trump involves invoking a little-known section of the US Federal Power Act that allows the Energy Department to temporarily intervene when the nation's electricity supply is threatened by an emer-gency, such as war or natural disaster.

Among other measures, it temporarily exempts power plants from obeying environ-mental 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 interven-tion 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.

After a conversation with Trump at a July 25 political rally in Youngstown, Ohio, Murray wrote, the president told Perry three times, "I want this done." Trump also directed the emergency order be given during an August 3 conversation in Huntington, West Virginia, he said.

"As stated, disastrous consequences for President Trump, our electric power grid reliability, and tens of thousands of coal miners will result if this is not immediately done," he wrote.

The Energy Department has already informed Murray it will not invoke the law, an official with knowledge of the decision told the AP.

Coal has become an increasingly unattractive fuel for United States 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 fuelled by cleaner-burning natural gas made more abundant in recent years by new drilling technologies.

- AP