Study That Failed to Back Trump’s Coal Rescue Plan Is Kept Under Wraps

(Bloomberg) -- A report commissioned by the Energy Department failed to reach conclusions favoring the Trump administration’s efforts to prop up coal and nuclear power -- and remains under wraps six months after submission.

“The report hasn’t seen the light of day,” the principal author, Michael Webber tweeted on Friday.

The analysis by the University of Texas’s Webber Energy Group was delivered six months ago and debunks the administration’s primary argument for taking extraordinary measures to keep coal plants operating, Webber said. “The three points the report makes are useful and counter to the narrative -- and squashed,” he said in an interview.

Sarah Robertson-Neumann, a spokeswoman for the Idaho National Laboratory, the Energy Department facility that Webber said commissioned the report, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The administration is considering using authority under the 68-year-old Defense Production Act to force grid operators to buy electricity from specific power plants at risk of closing. According to a May memo outlining the plan, the government also could establish a strategic reserve of critical power generators: a stable of coal and nuclear plants that could be revved up in case of an emergency.

Supporters argue that the unprecedented steps are needed to preserve the dependability of the power grid. They say gas-fired power plants rely on pipelines that are vulnerable to attack while coal and nuclear plants generally store fuel on site, making them more reliable.

But the Webber analysis said on-site fuel is only one factor in judging the resilience of power generators. There are at least a dozen other considerations, including the reliability of individual facilities.

Although the report was supposed to focus on the role power plants play in resiliency, Webber also noted bigger issues with transmission lines -- the wires and poles that help deliver electricity. “Power plants aren’t the big problem,” Webber said.

The report found that every power type has a mix of pros and cons when it comes to keeping the grid running.

“There is no one answer,” Webber said in a phone interview. “You have to have a suite of options.”

Of course, not all reports commissioned by government are released to the public under Republican and Democratic presidents alike.

This instance is eye-raising, however, in that it has a finding that doesn’t match the Trump administration’s narrative that coal and nuclear plants should be subsidized because they are more resilient to disruptions including malicious attacks from foreign actors that could jeopardize national security.

The Trump administration already publicly released a report by the National Energy Technology Laboratory that credited coal with keeping the lights on during the “bomb cyclone” that plunged the Eastern U.S. into single-digit temperatures last January. The report, which was later used by proponents of Trump’s grid intervention, was roundly debunked by experts, and internal documents showed Energy Department officials pushed its authors to highlight the value of coal-fired power plants.

An Energy Department report on the security of the U.S. electric grid released in 2017 that made the case for rescuing the nation’s coal industry from widespread plant shutdowns was changed to paint a grimmer picture after an earlier draft concluded that the nation’s power grid was more reliable than ever -- even as coal plants close.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has said the plan is awaiting a green light by the White House.

“Kudos to DOE to ask for this report,” Webber said. “They’re calling upon the right people, and they’re asking some of the right questions. But then it’s not clear the input is making it all the way to the decision makers.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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