President Trump’s fascination with coal borders on obsession — maybe that’s what happens when coal barons donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to one’s inauguration — and he has promised repeatedly to revive the flagging industry. Never mind that the energy market is moving away from coal in favor of cheaper and cleaner natural gas, solar and wind power. Now the administration is contemplating invoking two rarely used laws to postpone the demise of some coal-fired power plants for two years, while also propping up some nuclear power plants that were slated to be mothballed.
It’s a preposterous idea. Continuing to operate financially nonviable power plants and forcing grid operators to buy power they don’t need or want is an unacceptable governmental intrusion into the power market that, by one analysis, would needlessly cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Even worse, the White House had the audacity last week to invoke national security when it announced that Trump had directed Energy Secretary Rick Perry to “prepare immediate steps to stop the loss” of coal and nuclear plants to ensure the stability of the power grid. Trump has cited the same spurious justification several times on trade issues, most recently in seeking an inquiry into whether auto imports also endanger national security.
Grid operators say the power system is not at risk, and federal regulators agree. In January, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — four of whose five members are Trump appointees — unanimously rejected a plan by Perry to shore up unprofitable coal and nuclear plants, ruling that the government had failed to prove that the power grid was in jeopardy. Nothing has happened since then that merits a different conclusion; this is a solution to a nonexistent problem.
Coal plants are exactly the kind of power generation that the nation — indeed, the world — needs to move away from if we are to reduce the effects of global warming from the burning of fossil fuels. It’s true that nuclear power does not add to carbon emissions in the atmosphere and thus is better than coal and even natural gas, but such plants are so expensive to build, operate safely and clean up after that the electricity they generate isn’t competitive. And we still don’t have a permanent solution to to the problem of radioactive nuclear waste.