Energy commission sees no national security risk from coal plant closures

Energy commission sees no national security risk from coal plant closures
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Federal energy regulators on Tuesday indicated they do not see a national security risk from the closure of coal and nuclear power plants in the U.S.

Asked by Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichOvernight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador Senate committee advances nomination of general accused of sexual assault House passes bill requiring CBP to enact safety, hygiene standards MORE (D-N.M.) at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing whether they believed the U.S. faced a national security emergency in wholesale power markets because of the closures, none of the five members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) answered in the affirmative. 

Four of the five members were appointed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated MORE

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Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryThe credible case for Texas and its clean energy solutions Oversight: Trump confidant Tom Barrack pushed for Saudi nuclear plant construction Amazon taps Trump ally to lobby amid Pentagon cloud-computing contract fight MORE last fall submitted a controversial proposal to subsidize struggling U.S. coal and nuclear plants, arguing it was necessary to keep the power grid dependable.

FERC unanimously rejected the multibillion dollar proposal in January, saying it was not legally defensible. 

U.S. coal and nuclear plants are facing increased competition in the U.S. from renewable energy. This has led to a number of plant closures and calls for help from the federal government.

FERC member Richard Glick told the panel he was "sympathetic to the plight of coal miners who have been disproportionately affected" as coal's slice of the nation's energy production has fallen.

However, he said, it was not FERC's job to determine how to help the struggling communities.

"FERC has a responsibility to ensure the reliability and resilience of the grid. And we should take our duty seriously. But we cannot try to stop the natural evolution of this industry by claiming there is a national security emergency unless there is evidence that that emergency exists," he said.

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellNative American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment Hillicon Valley: Trump reportedly weighing executive action on alleged tech bias | WH to convene summit on online extremism | Federal agencies banned from buying Huawei equipment | Lawmakers jump start privacy talks Lawmakers jump-start talks on privacy bill MORE (D-Wash), the panel's ranking member, criticized the prospect of a bailout.

"In my view you started things off right by rejecting Secretary Perry's radical proposal to force consumers to bail out noncompetitive coal — not only do I believe the underlying policy is wrong. but it’s a threat on your oversight and independence to be directed this way," Cantwell said in her opening statement.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's Morning Report - Progressives, centrists clash in lively Democratic debate Senate braces for brawl over Trump's spy chief Congress kicks bipartisan energy innovation into higher gear MORE (R-Alaska), the panel's chairwoman, said closures had "not reached the point where the quality of electric service have been visibly compromised."

In April, First Energy, a coal and nuclear company with plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, filed for bankruptcy and subsequently asked Perry for a federal bailout, calling it an emergency and security risk.

"The continued retirement of nuclear and coal-fired generating facilities in PJM (Interconnection) has resulted in an emergency situation that has placed the continuing security of PJM at risk,” the company wrote to Perry.

While Perry did not grant the bailout, President Trump has been vocal about his desire to help coalminers.

In early June, the White House called on Perry to take immediate steps to help struggling coal and nuclear power plants, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.

"Keeping America's energy grid and infrastructure strong and secure protects our national security. ... Unfortunately, impending retirements of fuel-secure power facilities are leading to a rapid depletion of a critical part of our nation's energy mix, and impacting the resilience of our power grid," she said in a statement.

Some energy companies and grid operators have pushed back on Trump's plan, including PJM Interconnection, the nation's largest power grid operator.

"Any federal intervention in the market to order customers to buy electricity from specific power plants would be damaging to the markets and therefore costly to consumers," said the operator in a statement at the time. "There is no need for any such drastic action."