The Trump administration is mulling the use of a Truman-era law to make good on the promise to restore the coal industry, according to a Thursday report from Bloomberg.
The Defense Production Act of 1950 offers the president power to implement subsidies for domestically produced materials in the name of national defense and also claims “it is necessary and appropriate to assure the availability of domestic energy supplies.”
Per reports, the Trump administration believes his authority under the law could be a way to help out nuclear and coal plants, and one that may have a better chance against judicial scrutiny.
So far, the administration hasn’t found a winning strategy for saving the two ailing industries.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rebuffed one attempt to help coal and nuclear in January when it rejected Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s plan to provide support for plants with 90 days of fuel on site. It opted instead to open its own resilience proceeding.
FirstEnergy in March requested the Department of Energy use its emergency authority under Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act to provide a lifeline to its coal and nuclear plants. The department has not yet made a decision on the request.
The Cold War-era law may offer the administration another chance, if it can argue that supporting coal and nuclear falls within its purview. Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program, wrote on Twitter that “the law’s purposes are rooted in military preparedness for war, disasters, and terrorism.”
If they do choose to use the law, reports of cyberattacks on U.S. energy infrastructure may offer fodder for the national defense argument — although attacks have included fossil fuel infrastructure. The administration may also argue that coal and nuclear plants make for a more resilient grid, as DOE has in the past.
While the White House works to find a solution, coal boosters are getting anxious.
Last week, coal magnate Robert Murray told an audience at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit that if U.S. production takes a deeper dip, “people are going to die in the dark.” Murray argued that the country needs baseload power from fossil fuels in cases of emergency.
In a Wednesday letter, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin explicitly asked the administration to use the 1950 law to support coal, an appeal he centered on protecting American workers.
“While we cannot undo the damage done by the previous administration that turned its back on these hardworking Americans,” wrote Manchin. “We do have an opportunity to recognize the unique role this industry plays in protecting and promoting our national security.”
Clean energy advocates disagree, arguing that clean energy plus storage can provide resilient power as the nation weans itself off fossil fuels. Renewable energy jobs now far outweigh jobs in coal and fossil fuel extraction.
Interestingly, the law also includes a plug for clean energy.
“To further assure the adequate maintenance of the domestic industrial base, to the maximum extent possible, domestic energy supplies should be augmented through reliance on renewable energy sources (including solar, geothermal, wind, and biomass sources),” it reads.
Bloomberg reports that the administration is still weighing options, but it doesn’t need congressional approval to move forward. It's unclear whether it can justify use to support preferred energy sectors. But as Peskoe wryly pointed out on Twitter: “Isn’t the War on Coal justification enough?”