Lawmakers weigh growing absence of coal

A Senate panel on Thursday questioned the impact of the Obama administration's climate rules on the reliability and security of the electric grid.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing, called to examine physical threats to the electric grid and recently leaked classified information on the vulnerability of several substations, strayed to talk of the Environmental Protection Agency's carbon emissions limits on coal-fired power plants.

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"How acceptable a risk is this if the impact to the reliability is caused by federal policy — and when I say federal policy, the push within this administration to move coal out," said Sen. Lisa Murkwoski (R-Alaska).

"And the fact that we are seeing so many coal facilities going offline during the polar vortex this winter, we saw that I think 89 percent of the coal electricity capacity that is due to go offline was utilized as that back-up to meet demand this winter," Murkowski added.

The concern over the EPA's proposed carbon limits for new and existing coal-fired plants has Republicans and a few Democratic lawmakers worried. As coal-fired plants threaten to close across the country, lawmakers are placing blame on what they call an overzealous climate change agenda by the administration.

Chairwoman of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, Colette Honorable, said utility regulators across the country are continually meeting with EPA officials and agency chief Gina McCarthy to talk about the reliability of the grid and the new performance standards for power plants.

"We embrace an 'all of the above' energy approach and we believe that coal is a low-cost option and certainly a part of our energy mix," Honorable told Murkowski. "We are working with the EPA to ensure that they hear us."

McCarthy has reiterated throughout the last year that the agency vows its carbon rule will allow a great amount of flexibility to states, which will be able to use their own method and technology to curb emissions.

Still, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) isn't convinced.

"Keep in mind that coal will provide about 30% of our power for at least the next three decades. As you are doing that, think about the fact that nearly 20 percent of the coal fleet is being retired," Manchin said on Thursday. "Add the fact that EPA’s proposed New Source Performance Standard rule will effectively ban the construction of any new coal plants, and you see that our reliability crisis is getting much worse."

Manchin pressed witnesses on whether they thought the administration's policies were "in sync with reality."

The CEO of one of the nation's largest electric utilities, American Electric Power, Nicholas Akins, said the decrease of coal is a result of a "substantial transition," noting that consumers will be vulnerable for a period of time as a result.

"There needs to be more thorough and thoughtful analysis and I would encourage the EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy to get together and have a substantial discussion not only about environmental policy, but in the framework of the other activities that are occurring around grid reliability and grid resiliency," Akins said.