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Trump Officials Pressured National Lab to Help Coal Agenda

August 9, 2018

Trump administration officials pressured the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) to write their March 2018 resilience study to benefit coal producers, according to a Bloomberg story posted today based on documents obtained by Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

That study has figured prominently in efforts to bail out uneconomic and expensive coal plants. For example, First Energy Solutions heavily cited the NETL study in its pending request with DOE for a bailout.

The NETL study’s many flaws

The NETL study was supposed to assess how different types of generation fared during the extreme cold of December 2017-January 2018 (Bomb Cyclone). NETL said that its study showed that further coal retirements could hinder our electricity grid resilience, particularly during severe weather events

But as Michael Goggin, a grid reliability expert, has explained, the NETL report actually demonstrated that coal is expensive, not that it is resilient (able to withstand high-impact events).

The NETL study’s sole metric of resilience was comparing the electricity output of different types of energy sources during the Bomb Cyclone with the preceding 26 days of December 2017. Coal generation increased more, proportionately, than gas generation. This makes sense, because coal is more expensive than gas. So, when energy demands were less, many coal plants sat idle or underutilized. When it got really cold, it became economical to run those plants for a short period of time.

As noted by Goggin, this does not indicate that coal is more resilient, but is “a testament to the poor economics of coal generation.”

This is just one of many methodological flaws in the NETL study. Our own John Moore conjectured when the NETL study was released that “[o]ne could conclude that through the NETL report, DOE is attempting to create some of the analytical justification” for a coal bailout.

We were right.

Evidence of political pressure

According to emails cited by Bloomberg and obtained by Sierra Club and EDF under the Freedom of Information Act, the Office of Advanced Fossil Technology Director Angelos Kokkinos pressured NETL analysts to include information about coal and nuclear retirements and noted points NETL “need[ed] to make” to highlight “the need for system planners to more strongly consider generator performance during extreme weather events, particularly for natural-gas fired units.”

The emails show that Trump officials further lauded NETL analysts for finding “very powerful information on the need for fossil fuel and coal.”

As noted by Bloomberg, the emails also contain examples of Trump administration officials “gleefully anticipating the next cold snap and disparaging energy experts who didn’t agree with their coal-focused view as incompetent.”

For example, Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg hoped that “the weather blesses us with another cold snap and energy resources get tight.”

Additionally, in emails with staff of Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and provided to NRDC by Sierra Club, study co-author Kenneth Kern stated that, based on their recent Senate testimony, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chairman Kevin McIntyre and DOE Assistant Secretary Bruce Walker had “no desire (or they’re not prepared) to accede to Secretary Perry’s point regarding the need to consider the value of resilience in generation and to compensate accordingly” and that their “glib responses” that “coal generation was helpful but not mandatory” were “appalling.”

Kern added that “in the case of FERC, they may be reflecting a degree of resistance to submitting to DOE authority on such matters.” For example, on January 8, 2018, the Republican-majority FERC unanimously rejected a DOE proposal to subsidize coal and nuclear power.

That strange feeling of déjà vu

This is not the first time that Trump administration officials have meddled with DOE studies. In July 2017, Bloomberg obtained a leaked draft of DOE’s August 2017 study on overall grid resilience and reliability. A comparison of the leaked draft with the final version shows that Trump administration officials, unhappy with the draft’s conclusion that the grid is resilient and reliable, rewrote portions of the report to better support their views. This study also has been used to support a coal bailout.

DOE has been trying to justify a bailout for over 18 months without success. But the fact that Trump administration officials would go to the step of meddling with seemingly objective scientific reports to suit their political agenda is another low point in this ongoing saga.

I repeat my plea from June: this game of whack-a-mole needs to stop.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Sustainable FERC Project or Natural Resources Defense Council.