The top regulators of the nation's power grid told Congress on Tuesday that they see no immediate national security emergency to justify propping up coal and nuclear power plants with a government order, as the Trump administration is considering.
All five members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, weighed in at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a debate that has been roiling the industry and its regulators for months. It was the first time in many years that the whole commission had appeared before the committee together.
Even though most of them were appointed by President Donald Trump, they seemed ambivalent or even hostile to his repeated attempts, along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, to require grid operators to buy power from uneconomical coal and nuclear power plants.
Trump political supporters and influential fossil fuel companies, including the coal company Murray Energy and utility FirstEnergy, have pushed for a government-ordered bailout, while a diverse mix of environmental advocates, major grid operators and some public utility companies and natural gas suppliers have argued strongly against it.
The administration wants to keep coal and nuclear generators from being driven out of business by cheaper natural gas or carbon-free wind and solar. A few months ago, FERC rebuffed Perry's attempt to subsidize plant operators who keep 90 days of fuel on hand. Now, the White House has told Perry to use his own emergency powers under two laws to bail the industry out on grounds that plant closures are presenting a national security emergency.
But the idea that the grid is currently so frail as to present an urgent military crisis has received little support, and next to none at the commission.
FERC's chairman, Kevin McIntyre, reading a formal statement aloud, spoke of the deliberative approach the commission has adopted: opening a docket to solicit the views of all parties, especially the grid operators with the fingertip control of electricity supply. To Trump and his allies, this is bureaucratese for kicking the can down the road and risks providing too little assistance too late.
Vigilance, but No Rush to Intervene
Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, a Kentucky native and former energy advisor to pro-coal Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), was the most receptive to some kind of action, if not on an emergency basis.
"In my view, 'no action' is like driving your car without a seat belt," he said.
Other commissioners echoed Chatterjee's call for "vigilance." But while they said it was important to keep the grid resilient during storms, heat waves, cold snaps or market upheavals, they looked askance at emergency federal intervention that would favor one fuel or another.
That, said Commissioner Robert Powelson, a former member of Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission and past president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, would be "a real step back" from the benefits that have accrued to competing fuel suppliers and to consumers alike.
It would also retreat from the climate and other environmental benefits from wind and solar, as well as from storage technologies and smart metering that are helping to clean up the grid.
Commissioners Richard Glick, a former official with energy company Iberdrola, and Cheryl LaFleur, a former executive at National Grid USA who was appointed to FERC by President Barack Obama in 2010, were most hostile to the Trump plan.
"We cannot try to stop the natural evolution of this industry by claiming that there is a national security emergency unless there is evidence that suggests that an emergency actually exists," Glick said.
GOP Senator also Skeptical of Emergency Claim
After more than an hour of testimony, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) asked the question directly:
"Do any of you believe that in the wholesale power markets we are facing an actual national security emergency at the moment?"
"I do not," said LaFleur, the most outspoken of the commission's opponents of intervention.
"Would anyone answer that with a yes?" Heinrich inquired.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the committee's chairwoman, also said she was skeptical.
"As with many controversies, with so much at stake in such a heavily regulated industry such as energy, the various interests are locked in," she noted. "This is battle, this is mortal conflict for some."
Murkowski is closely aligned with the oil and gas industry. Its lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute, has joined renewable energy advocates to strongly oppose the administration's efforts on behalf of coal and nuclear.
'FERC Does Not Pick Winners and Losers'
The committee's ranking Democrat, Maria Cantwell of Washington, said she found the idea of intervening in markets "mind-boggling."
The commissioners, in more measured words, seemed to agree with her.
"FERC does not pick winners and losers in the market," Powelson said. "Instead we create an environment where the market can pick the winners and losers." He called it a "moral hazard" to do otherwise.
"We need to be wary of people using the situation or a potential situation as a way to achieve market changes that they haven't been able to achieve otherwise," Glick said.