Energy commission sees no national security risk from coal plant closures

Energy commission sees no national security risk from coal plant closures
© Getty

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 Energy: Democrats ask if EPA chief misled on vehicle emissions | Dem senators want NBC debate focused on climate change | 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan Democratic senators want NBC primary debate to focus on climate change Collins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' 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 TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE

ADVERTISEMENT

Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryOvernight Defense: Trump hails D-Day veterans in Normandy | Trump, Macron downplay rift on Iran | Trump mourns West Point cadet's death in accident | Pentagon closes review of deadly Niger ambush Trump hails D-Day veterans in Normandy: 'You are the pride of our nation' Trump hails D-Day veterans in Normandy: 'You are the pride of our nation' 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 CantwellHillicon Valley: Democratic state AGs sue to block T-Mobile-Sprint merger | House kicks off tech antitrust probe | Maine law shakes up privacy debate | Senators ask McConnell to bring net neutrality to a vote Hillicon Valley: Democratic state AGs sue to block T-Mobile-Sprint merger | House kicks off tech antitrust probe | Maine law shakes up privacy debate | Senators ask McConnell to bring net neutrality to a vote Senators call on McConnell to bring net neutrality rules to a vote 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 MurkowskiHillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Klobuchar, Murkowski introduce legislation to protect consumer health data 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."