Week 37: Rick Perry Wants to Drag Dirty, Old Power Plants Out of Retirement

Week 37: Rick Perry Wants to Drag Dirty, Old Power Plants Out of Retirement

Reading Pruitt’s Outlook calendar; Trump’s unholy pick for the EPA’s toxics office.

Rick’s Picks: Coal and Nuclear

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry is trying to stave off the planned retirement of dozens of out-of-date coal-fired and nuclear power plants. So he asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last Friday to artificially fix electricity prices in favor of those plants. This would, in effect, force the solar, wind, and natural gas industries to subsidize coal and nuclear, which are no longer able to compete in an open marketplace.

Perry claims the move is necessary to maintain what he calls “generation diversity” (using many different fuel sources) and “grid resilience” (the ability of the electric grid to respond to peak demand or supply disruptions). Both these arguments are total and complete bunk.

On fuel diversity, Perry has it backward. Our diminishing reliance on coal has improved diversity, not decreased it. Over the past decade, coal has gone from providing nearly half of all U.S. electricity generation to just 30 percent. Natural gas has replaced much of that production, but so has a growing mix of renewable sources. Wind production has more than doubled, and solar has also grown substantially. The grid is diverse, and getting more so, without Perry’s help.

The grid resilience claim is only slightly less laughable, but the Trump administration has been pushing it for months. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt argued in March that coal (or uranium, for that matter) is especially reliable because it’s a solid object that can be kept on-site at power plants.

There’s an intuitive appeal to this idea—that something you can hold in your hands is more reliable than gas, wind, sunlight, human engineering, and mathematical models. The same sentiment probably motivates the gold standard movement. But, however tempting it is to follow this instinct, we ought to resist our lizard brains on this one.

Our electricity supply is not limited by how much “stuff” we have to burn. Many generators sit around doing nothing most of the time because they can’t compete in the marketplace. When energy demand peaks and electric prices rise, these extra generators become profitable again and are switched on. The system works beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that only 0.0007 percent of electricity disruptions in the past five years have had anything to do with fuel supply issues. Allowing FERC to tinker excessively with prices would only muddy that marketplace.

On Tuesday, an unusual coalition of industry groups including oil, gas, wind, and solar came out against Perry’s proposal, arguing that Perry “provides no justification for this action whatsoever.” That’s not quite right. He had a justification—it was just a dishonest one.

Perry repeatedly says environmental regulations are killing coal and that if the government would simply get out of the way and stop “picking winners and losers,” coal would thrive again. But with his proposal for FERC, Perry is himself attempting to pick winners and losers by trying to artificially fix prices.

I’m not personally opposed to the government picking winners, mind you. I just think we should pick the ones that don’t give us cancer and heart disease.

Suggestion Box

The EPA’s  “plan” to replace the Clean Power Plan leaked on Wednesday. Plan is in quotation marks, because the only firm idea the agency has is to repeal the Obama-era rule, which would cut carbon pollution from our aging fleet of power plants. The administration appears to have no inkling where to go from there in order to carry out its legal obligation to address carbon emissions. So the EPA will ask the public for ideas.

Oh, pick me! Pick me! I have one. We can cut carbon emissions by limiting pollution from our aging fleet of power plants. I call this idea “the Clean Power Plan.”

The Company He Keeps

The New York Times has published Administrator Pruitt’s full meeting calendar, telling us even more about whom he’s been consorting with. The man in charge of protecting public health and the environment hasn’t even attempted to maintain a façade of caring about those duties. Between February and May, Pruitt appears to have met with only a handful of health and environmental advocates, opting instead to flit among Washington’s stuffiest restaurants to wine and dine with lobbyists and executives of the industries his agency is supposed to regulate.

In response, the EPA says Pruitt is “now meeting with those ignored by the Obama administration.” This is simply a lie. The New York Times did us the favor of comparing Pruitt’s schedule with that of his predecessor, Gina McCarthy, who oversaw the EPA during President Obama’s second term. McCarthy met with far more environmental groups, but unlike Pruitt, she made herself available to a broad range of people—not just environmentalists but also industry groups like the American Gas Association and the National Pork Producers Council. The two calendars clearly show it is Pruitt, not McCarthy, who has shut out a wide swath of the population from his agency.

Another key difference is that McCarthy spent a lot of time meeting with her own employees, the career EPA staffers who understood how to review scientific research and write balanced regulations. Pruitt, in contrast, has hired security to protect himself from his staff and is now building a soundproof box so he doesn’t have to interact with them.

Heaven Help Us

The Senate held hearings on Wednesday for Michael Dourson, Trump’s nominee to lead the EPA’s chemical safety office. Dourson is, shall we say, a problematic choice for the job.

A flame retardant industry group paid Dourson $10,000 in consulting fees last year. (Though being on the payroll of the industry you’re supposed to be regulating is pretty standard for a Trump nominee.) Then, in January 2017, Dourson published a book titled The Linen Cloths . . . Jesus Left Behind, in which he attempts to prove that the Shroud of Turin, which carbon-14 tests have dated to between 1260 and 1390 C.E., is Christ’s authentic burial cloth. (OK, but rejecting scientific evidence is also par for the Trump course.)

Here’s where it gets weird. In that book, Dourson includes a passage arguing that chemical flame retardants aren’t dangerous to children’s health. I have to say that gratuitously including a plug for a chemical produced by an industry that is paying you in a book about Jesus is a new low in Trump-world shadiness.

Dourson’s flame retardant shenanigans are just the beginning. His consulting company has also accepted money from Dow Chemical, the American Chemistry Council, the American Petroleum Institute, and, wait for it . . . Koch Industries. Of course.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch.