The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: This panel rejected Trump's plan to save coal. Now one of the officials involved may join it.

with Paulina Firozi


This year, a key independent government panel unanimously rejected a plan from the Trump administration to save struggling coal and nuclear plants. Trump's team at the Energy Department had to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to keep even more of those power stations from closing, after Trump campaigned on bringing the coal business back to parts of the country that are rapidly shedding jobs in the industry.

Now a member of that team may soon get a spot on that very panel. On Wednesday, President Trump nominated the Energy Department's Bernard McNamee to be one of five commissioners on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC Commissioner Robert Powelson announced his retirement over the summer.

With coal-fired and nuclear power steadily being edged out of the electricity market by stiffer anti-pollution regulations and tighter competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy, the Energy Department urged FERC last year to approve a plan favoring power plants able to store fuel on site. Only coal and nuclear plants are able to do that at scale.

But the rest of the energy industry, including a rare alliance of oil, renewable energy and environmental interests, regarded the plan as a veiled rescue of politically favored energy producers. 

“From just a quick look at his resume, the speeches he’s made, and his past associations, it’s clear McNamee is nothing more than a political plant for Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Donald Trump" on what is supposed to be an independent panel, the Sierra Club's Mary Anne Hitt said in a statement Wednesday.

Members of the Trump administration, including McNamee and his boss, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, suggested that the electricity marketplace is failing to properly reward those baseload plants for being able to produce power reliably. McNamee is currently the executive director of the department's Office of Policy and had previously been its deputy general counsel for energy policy.

“A lot of the organized markets,” McNamee told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July, “have distortions in them that aren’t representative of an actual free-serving market.”

“So the thought is, in that sense, that you need to remove some of those distortions,” he added.

And in an op-ed in The Hill in April, McNamee said: “Some suggest that we can replace fossil fuels with renewable resources to meet our needs, but they never explain how.”

Noting that renewable generators produce power “only when the sun is shining or wind is blowing,” he added: “This does not mean we should not use renewable energy. Of course we should. But these facts do mean that we need to be honest about whether renewables can displace other energy resources in providing for our energy needs.”

FERC did not see things the Trump administration's way. While the panel said it shared the administration's goals of strengthening grid resilience, it felt there were better ways of going about it. The resounding rejection of the plan in January came despite three of FERC's five members being Republican, and four of them having been nominated by Trump.

Given that unanimous decision, McNamee's presence on the panel would not have changed the outcome. But the same cannot be said in another potential vote on some modified coal and nuclear bailout, should it come before the commission.

“It's not clear to me that the situation changes,” said Greg Wetstone, head of the American Council on Renewable Energy, which opposed the Trump administration plan.

But he added he is waiting for “what comes next from the White House.”


— EPA excluded its own top science officials when it rewrote rules on using scientific studies: The Environmental Protection Agency left out the Office of Science Advisor when it sought to rewrite rules on what kinds of scientific studies could be used to protect public health, The Post’s Steven Mufson and Chris Mooney report. In an April email released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the director of the office  wrote: “Even though OSA and I have not participated in the development of this document and I just this moment obtained it (have yet to read it), I am listed as the point of contact.”

— Will the steel surge help steelworkers?: When Trump announced tariffs on steel imports earlier this year, steelworkers in Pennsylvania and across the country thought they would benefit from the protectionist measures. But today they are not so sure.

“Now, facing less foreign competition, domestic steel companies’ profits are ballooning. And, crediting Trump, the companies are making plans to open up new steel plants and hire more workers," The Post’s Jeff Stein reports. "Yet the trickle-down effects are far harder to predict.” The question will face a test in southwest Pennsylvania during labor contract negotiations for U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal, Stein writes, and workers say it is “the perfect opportunity for the companies to be more generous with their workers — who had given up raises just a few years ago when times were tough.”

— The Associated Press issued a correction Wednesday on a story that initially had a headline that the news agency later said "erroneously" suggested the EPA would argue a little radiation may be beneficial for people. "As the story made clear, that assessment came from scientific outliers, including one quoted by EPA in a news release," the AP said.


— Climate scientists struggle to find the right words for bad news: When 50 scientists and representatives from more than 130 countries gather in South Korea this week at the 48th session of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they will be debating how best to deliver yet even worse news to the world about the warming globe, The Post’s Mooney and Brady Dennis report. An early draft “suggests that future scenarios of a 1.5 C warming limit would require the massive deployment of technologies” that do not yet exist. “It’s not clear how scientists can best give the world’s governments this message — or to what extent governments are up for hearing it,” Mooney and Dennis write.

— Climate change scrubbed from another government report: A draft proposal from the Trump administration on weakening rules that aim to prevent the leaking and venting of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, has dropped language that details how climate change impacts children’s health, E&E News reports. “That language was nixed during an interagency review by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs,” per the report.


— Oil watch: Russia and Saudi Arabia reached a private agreement to boost oil output, and informed the United States of the plan, according to a report from Reuters. A source told Reuters the countries “agreed to add barrels to the market quietly with a view not to look like they are acting on Trump’s order to pump more" after the U.S. president repeatedly criticized the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries for high oil prices.

— Pipeline plans: Canadian company Enbridge Inc. agreed Wednesday to pay for a replacement of a controversial oil pipeline that runs under Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac. The project is expected to cost $350 million to $500 million and take seven to 10 years, the Detroit News reports. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether called the plan a “common-sense solution to a decades-long environmental concern” — that being whether the controversial Line 5 pipeline could leak into the Great Lakes.

— Peabody's comeback: Peabody Energy has held conversations to buy a majority stake in Drummond International, Colombia’s top coal exporter, a move that “would cement a swift comeback from bankruptcy for America’s largest coal producer,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Peabody had gone bankrupt only two years ago but mounted a comeback on higher prices for thermal coal.


Coming Up

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine holds a webinar that includes a briefing from the Energy Department’s Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Mark Gilbertson on Friday.

— These brown bears have been preparing for hibernation: And the Anchorage Daily News reports the Katmai National Park and Preserve will be releasing before and after photos of individual bears for the next week.