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The Energy 202: Perry's power grid proposal nabs some union backing

with Paulina Firozi


When Energy Secretary Rick Perry proposed a plan to subsidize coal and nuclear plants for reliably supplying electricity to the power grid, he scrambled the usual alliances that exist on energy issues.

Oil and gas representatives teamed with solar and wind lobbyists to urge caution on what they regarded as a rushed proposal. Ex-Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner commissioners from both parties formally denounced Perry’s plan as a “significant step backward” that would distort electricity markets.

But support for Perry's proposal is coming from corners usually aligned with Democrats.

A few labor unions that traditionally support Democratic politicians are backing the bid to change regulations to help coal and nuclear power.

“The importance of these plants remaining operational cannot be overstated,” Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, wrote in a letter to the FERC, the independent agency that will decide whether to implement the proposal. “We have seen the devastation that occurs in our communities when major employers leave a region.”

The Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA), as well as several local chapters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) representing workers at coal and nuclear plants, also submitted letters of support to FERC during the comment period for the proposed rule.

"The UWUA supports those who support the priorities of our members and their communities regardless of their political affiliation," Mike Langford, the union's natoinal president, said in a statement to The Energy 202.

In late September, Perry proposed a sweeping set of rules to help older coal and nuclear plants compete with gas-fired, solar and wind power sources.

The worry from Perry and other supporters of coal and nuclear power is that as more electricity generation shifts to increasingly cheaper renewables, the less reliable the power to the grid becomes. That's because solar and wind power produce electricity only when the weather permits it.

So, the Energy Department proposed compensating facilities capable of running continuously, which include coal and nuclear plants, for the resiliency they provide to the grid.  

Critics contend that the Energy Department's own research leading up to the proposed rule found that it is cheap natural gas, not environmental regulations nor renewable energy sources, that have driven coal and nuclear plants out of business — and that the loss of those plants has yet to effect the reliability of the grid.

But should FERC enact a rule similar to Perry's proposal — still a big if for the independent agency — it will constitute a seismic shift for electricity markets that could upend investments made in renewable energy.

"It scared the bejesus out of me," said Richard J. Pierce Jr., a George Washington University law professor who specializes in energy regulation.

Unions have adopted Perry's argument emphasizing that coal and nuclear provide reliable power -- as well as pointing out the jobs such industries provide.

“Time and again, these EGUs [electrical generating units], with their stable sources of on-site fuel, have kept the lights on when the grid is strained to the breaking point,” wrote Langford, UWUA’s national president.

“If baseload coal and nuclear generation EGUs are not properly valued for their services,” he continued, “thousands more workers are at risk of losing their jobs.”

Labor support for this specific proposal may not portend a greater shift. The AFL-CIO, IBEW and UWUA each supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. 

The IBEW has backed the Democratic lieutenant governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, over Republican Ed Gillespie in the state's Nov. 7 gubernatorial race. And more than a year before Ohio elects its next governor in 2018, UWUA has endorsed Ohio State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat.

For each time that Trump has aligned himself with union interests during his presidency — by renegotiating NAFTA and, now, the grid reliability proposal — there are other instances of the administration alienating union workers.

These include picks to the National Labor Relations Board activists perceive as anti-labor and the Supreme Court nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch, who has a history of siding with businesses on labor issues.

“It doesn’t appear that co-opting the unions was central to the thinking of the people who designed this DOE policy,” said Joseph A. McCartin, a history professor at Georgetown who focuses on labor unions. “But it isn’t surprising that unions in the utility industry should embrace it.”

McCartin says the administration could do a better job of reaching out to union leaders and members around issues on which Trump and labor agree.

“The administration hasn’t been disciplined enough to try to do that,” McCartin said. “The potential is there but I don’t see this administration working really aggressively.”


-- Toxic: Over the weekend, Eric Lipton at the New York Times published a deep dive into the Environmental Protection Agency's shifting strategy under Scott Pruitt toward regulating toxic chemicals. After years of working to prevent regulation of a chemical linked to kidney cancer, birth defects and other health issues, the EPA has rewritten a rule to make it harder to track the chemical's health consequences.

In the piece, Lipton tracks the careers of the Trump appointee heading the agency’s toxic chemical unit, Nancy B. Beck, who ordered the revision and who previously worked for the chemical industry; and the EPA scientist, Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, who was overridden by Beck and who left the agency last month.

“The E.P.A.’s abrupt new direction on legacy chemicals is part of a broad initiative by the Trump administration to change the way the federal government evaluates health and environmental risks associated with hazardous chemicals, making it more aligned with the industry’s wishes," the Times reports. "It is a cause with far-reaching consequences for consumers and chemical companies, as the E.P.A. regulates some 80,000 different chemicals, many of them highly toxic and used in workplaces, homes and everyday products. If chemicals are deemed less risky, they are less likely to be subjected to heavy oversight and restrictions.”

Lipton shared some of the highlights from his investigation, and a telling response he got from the EPA. Here are just a few of his tweets:

The EPA's email to The Times reads: “No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece. The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”

That on-the-record response is yet another instance of the EPA counterpunching hard against reporting it is unhappy with, and one taken from the playbook of the president himself, as The Energy 202 has written before.

-- Climate change, scrubbed: The EPA has removed dozens of resources on climate change for local government from an agency web page, according to an analysis from the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative. The Times wrote up the analysis here. More than a dozen references to “climate change” were removed from the main page of the EPA's website.

-- Climate change, scrubbed Part II: The agency has ordered two of its scientists and a contractor to forgo speaking gigs at a scientific conference in Rhode Island, The Times reported. The Washington Post has more here: “EPA officials confirmed Sunday that its researchers would not present at the State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed program but did not offer an explanation for the decision." 

-- Meanwhile, the Energy Department is tweeting about climate change:

-- PSA: The Department of Homeland Security and FBI issued a warning late Friday that nuclear, energy, aviation, water and manufacturing industries have been targeted in attacks since at least May, per Reuters. The hackers “had succeeded in compromising some targeted networks, but did not identify specific victims or describe any cases of sabotage,” according to the report.

-- "No, no!": The Alaska Dispatch News has a telling anecdote from a conversation between Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Alaska's two Republican senators:

[Sen. Dan Sullivan] described an hour-plus meeting that he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski had a few months back with Trump and Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke in the Oval Office.

"We had maps and we were talking all about Alaska issues. So many issues. Our fisheries. Whaling, the culture of whaling in Alaska. The economy. The military," Sullivan said.

They brought up Obama administration actions that they said hurt Alaska, such as a block on the King Cove-Cold Bay road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Sullivan said.

On each one, Trump asked Zinke: "Can we change that and help Alaska?"

Trump thought of one on his own. Wasn't the name of a big mountain in Alaska changed by executive order? he asked, referring to Denali, the former Mount McKinley named for the president from Ohio.

"Lisa — Sen. Murkowski — and I jumped over the desk. We said no, no!" said Sullivan, who is originally from Ohio.

Why? Trump asked.

"The Alaska Native people named that mountain over 10,000 years ago," Sullivan said he told him. "Denali, that was the name."

Here is The HIll’s Timothy Cama’s takeaway from the exchange:

--  Trump vs. Cruz (the other one): The Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia writes that San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz has positioned herself as the face of Puerto Rico since the island was hit by Hurricane Maria. Here’s how Roig-Franzia described Yulin Cruz’s efforts to push for additional help for the U.S. territory with or without the president’s help:

Cruz seems to be banking on her ability to work around Trump, leveraging her mega-media platform and appealing directly to the public and to corporate givers. She points to truckloads of corporate donations pouring in as verification that she’s on the right path. But she also has continued to nudge the federal government to do much more, both in terms of relief resources and in delivering financial assistance to an island that has long been drowning in debt

“The nation has a big heart and the president has a big mouth,” Cruz said.

A look at how San Juan's Mayor advocated for Puerto Ricans in the face of two hurricanes that wiped out critical resources. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo/The Washington Post)

Here's where the recovery effort stands:

  • The death toll on the island has risen to 49 people, with the latest victim dying from leptospirosis, a bacterial illness. The Associated Press reported the local government is investigating almost 75 other cases of the disease. The illness may be more prevalent in tropical areas following heavy rains and floods, according to the report.
  • Companies are slowly broadening communication resources on the island. Project Loon, which was developed by a former branch of Google, is working with AT&T to bring giant floating balloons that operate like cell towers to provide cell service to Puerto Ricans. The companies told CNBC last week they are “now supporting basic communication” for “some people with LTE enabled phones.”
  • Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday called on President Trump to appoint a designated official to oversee relief efforts. Schumer with Democratic New York Reps. Nydia Velàzquez and Jose Serrano called for a “CEO of response and recovery,” per Reuters.
  • And in other storm-ravaged zones on the mainland, many are still waiting for help. The New York Times reports: “According to interviews with dozens of storm victims, one of the busiest hurricane seasons in years has overwhelmed federal disaster officials. As a result, the government’s response in the two biggest affected states — Texas and Florida — has been scattershot: effective in dealing with immediate needs, but unreliable and at times inadequate in handling the aftermath, as thousands of people face unusually long delays in getting basic disaster assistance.”
  • All five living former presidents appeared together at a benefit concert in College Station, Tex. over the weekend to raise money for the recent deluge of natural disasters. The event earned praise from Trump via a recorded message: “The American people have done what we do best,” Trump said.

Here's a video summary of the event as well as a few images shared on Twitter:

All five living former U.S. presidents attended a concert in Texas benefitting hurricane relief efforts on Oct. 21. (Video: Reuters)

From the account of the One America Appeal charity effort started by the five former presidents: 

From Lady Gaga: 

-- A final hurricane-recovery story worth a read: Our colleague Jenna Johnson’s dispatch from Houston tells the story of a divide she writes is playing out nationwide as Trump backers consider how federal support should be divided among hurricane-ravaged areas, including the territory of Puerto Rico. Some in Houston are thankful for the support, and the checks, that have arrived via FEMA. But they’re not sure whether their neighbors or their fellow American in Puerto Rico deserve the same. Johnson writes:

The divide in the Maddox household is one playing out across the country, as those who voted for the president debate how much support the federal government should give Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory without a voting member of Congress that is not allowed to vote in presidential elections.

Some supporters of the president, like Fred Maddox, agree with Trump that Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was frail before the storm; that the crisis was worsened by a lack of leadership there; and that the federal government should limit its involvement in the rebuilding effort, which will likely cost billions of dollars. But others, like Mary Maddox, are appalled by how the president talks about Puerto Rico and say the United States has a moral obligation to take care of its citizens.

Megadonor Tom Steyer launches TV ad campaign for Trump impeachment (David Weigel)

Oil refiners strike back at Scott Pruitt after he reverses position on biofuels mandate (Washington Examiner)

Here’s what Rick Perry would have recommended if he’d listened to his own grid study (Vox)


-- "A parable of redevelopment and race:" As Washington debates Trump's trillion-dollar push to rebuild the nation's infrastructure, communities like Corpus Christi are where new steel and concrete can upend lives. From one view, the development of a new bridge over a shipping channel in Corpus Christi, Tex. is a sign of thriving petrochemical industry. But from another view, it's another example of a poor and polluted neighborhood left in the shadow of progress, according to a story from The Post’s Michael Laris on a $500 million bridge project in the city's Hillcrest neighborhood.

Renewable energy threatens the world’s biggest science project (Bloomberg)


-- Scientists to the U.S.: We need more boats. The National Academies of Sciences reported in a new study on Friday that the United States needs to increase the number of research vessels in order to continue to analyze the effects of the changing climate.

The study called for a long-term plan for the research ships to continue critical ocean research.

"While new technologies such as autonomous ocean-going vehicles hold promise … for access to the ocean, a capable fleet of research vessels, including those with global reach, is essential to sustaining the U.S. contribution to ocean observing," the study found, reports the Washington Examiner.

"The decreasing number of global and ocean-class research vessels is creating a shortfall in the infrastructure required for sampling the global ocean and expanding collection into poorly sampled regions such as the polar seas," the study said.

-- Fires out: Northern California residents began returning home late last week following several days of devastating wildfires that killed 42 people and scorched more than 8,400 homes and businesses, per the Associated Press.

Meanwhile in Southern California, record-breaking heat this week could contribute to dangerous fire weather conditions, the National Weather Service has warned. Red flag warnings have been issued from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

Record heat, fierce Santa Ana winds to fuel wildfire threat in California (USA Today)

The U.S. has tied a record for the most billion-dollar weather disasters in a single year (The Weather Channel )


Coming Up

  • The American Wind Energy Association hosts an offshore wind power conference starting Tuesday.
  • The Cato Institute holds an event on “Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela” featuring author Raúl Gallegos on Tuesday.The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs holds a legislative hearing on Indian Land Bills on Wednesday.
  • The American Wind Energy Association Wind Energy Finance and Investment conference starts Wednesday.
  • The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a women in leadership luncheon on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act of 2017 on Wednesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on Empowering States in Sage Grouse Management on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a business meeting on Wednesday on the nominations of Michael Dourson to be assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, William Wehrum to be assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, Matthew Leopold to be assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of General Counsel, David Ross to be assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water, Paul Trombino III to be administrator for the DOT’s Federal Highway Administration and Jeffery Baran to be a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • George Mason University’s School of Policy and Government holds a symposium on grid security on Wednesday.
  • The Inter-American Dialogue hosts the Latin America Energy Conference on Wednesday.
  • The American Gas Association’s Natural Gas Roundtable is set for Thursday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to examine Cyber Technology and Energy Infrastructure on Thursday.

Fact Check: Is the United States 'leading the world' in CO2 footprint reductions?:

Environmental Protection Agency Administer Scott Pruitt boasted of America's shirking CO2 footprint, but it is has some of the highest emissions in the world. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Former presidents break tradition in denouncing Trump-era politics:

Former presidents make veiled criticisms of President Trump's leadership style. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Northern Michigan University offers first degree in marijuana:

Northern Michigan University is the first known university in the U.S. to offer a four-year degree in the study of marijuana. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)