When Energy Secretary Rick Perry launched a study of the country's electric grid earlier this year, he did not hide the fact that the Trump administration hoped the study would help the coal industry.
In a memo ordering the review, Perry suggested the coal industry was struggling because of "continued regulatory burdens, as well as mandates and tax and subsidy policies" — in other words, President Obama's environmental agenda. And in remarks following the launch of the study he suggested that America's electric grid may be unreliable because of our increased reliance on renewable energy, leading to national security concerns.
But those claims apparently did not hold up under scrutiny. The Energy Department released an official version of the study late Wednesday saying that cheap natural gas prices, driven by a boom in domestic natural gas production, have led to the decline in coal-fired power plants. The report also acknowledges that renewables have not threatened grid reliability.
"We got into this position because the administration violated one of the cardinal rules they teach young lawyers in law school," said Don Furman, a former executive at the PacifiCorp electric utility and director of Fix the Grid West, a nonprofit that advocates for renewables. "Never ask a question you don't know the answer to."
The Department of Energy's report calls for federal support to keep coal-fired and nuclear power plants running, describing the current moment as a "critical juncture" for many of those struggling plants. The report also suggests that coal and nuclear plants are more reliable in extreme circumstances like natural disasters or cyber attacks because they tend be to located near the places where the power is used and store their fuel on-site, unlike renewable energy plants, the report authors say.
"The core objective of electricity regulation has always been, and should continue to be, to ensure a reliable and resilient electric supply system," Perry said in a letter accompanying the study. "It is important for policy makers to consider their intended and unintended effects."
Publication of the study, originally scheduled for June, was delayed after a draft showing that renewable energy sources like wind and solar did not threaten reliability was leaked to the media. Renewable energy advocates expressed concern that the administration might change the report along political lines, and the leak created pressure to avoid drastic revisions.
What — if any — effect the official study will have is far from certain, in part because of the somewhat muted report findings and its disjointed nature. The study authors suggest a number of measures that could keep coal-fired power plants running, including a rethinking of electricity markets and use of the Federal Power Act to "ensure system reliability and resilience," which could be a precursor to a moratorium on the closing of coal-fired power plants. (The Trump administration reportedly rejected a request for a moratorium earlier this month). But implementing many of these findings would be unprecedented — the federal government typically leaves most decisions about electricity production to state authorities. Changing that — even with a strong scientific basis — is easier said than done.