Trump Can’t Rescue His Own Government’s Coal-Fired Power Plants

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump vowed to save coal, and he ordered top administration officials to prevent closures of power plants burning the fossil fuel.

But his administration couldn’t even rescue two coal-fired power plants in which the U.S. government has a direct stake.

The latest blow came as the operator of a massive 2.25-gigawatt coal plant in Arizona announced it was moving forward with plans to close the Navajo Generating Station later this year, despite the U.S. government’s 24 percent ownership interest, after talks with a potential buyer failed.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had previously tried to save the plant and some 800 regional jobs tied to it.

And just two weeks ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned corporation, brushed aside last-minute presidential pleas in deciding to shutter its Paradise Fossil Plant Unit 3, which gets most of its coal from mines operated by Trump ally Robert Murray. TVA board members voted 6-1 to decommission the Kentucky facility just three days after Trump urged them on Twitter to consider “all factors before voting to close viable power plants.”

The moves are potentially embarrassing defeats for an administration that has made saving coal a top priority. Trump last year ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to immediately take action to stem closures of coal and nuclear plants, arguing the resilience of the nation’s electric grid and U.S. security were at risk. But the White House hasn’t acted on a drafted plan to use emergency authority to order grid operators to buy coal-fired power, and federal regulators rejected a formal proposal to subsidize some struggling plants last year.

Competition from cheap natural gas and renewable power has prompted a wave of closures, driving utilities to decommission money-losing plants generating electricity from coal and nuclear material.

The Trump administration’s direct role in both cases was limited. The government has only a minority ownership stake in the Navajo Generating Station, an aging facility that sits on tribal land in the Four Corners area of Arizona. And though the TVA is technically a federally owned corporation, it operates independently, functioning as a private business.

Energy analysts say the planned closures show the limits of the Trump administration’s power to boost the fossil fuel’s fortunes in the U.S. But some coal advocates argue the administration could still be doing more to help.

“In both instances, the inability of the administration to translate policy preferences into outcomes has been notable,” said Republican energy strategist Mike McKenna. “Some in the administration have yet to fully grasp all of the leverage that they have available to them.”

Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman said the Interior Department would continue working with the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe on the future of both the Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Mine that feeds it. If a sale deal can’t be brokered with the support of the Navajo Nation, she said, the department will support decommissioning the plant following steps meant to minimize the impacts of that closure.

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