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Coal executive blasts federal energy regulators for ‘bureaucratic cop-out’ on Trump administration power plan

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Murray Energy chief executive Robert E. Murray, who had urged the Trump administration to prop up coal-fired power plants in electricity markets, blasted federal regulators Tuesday who rejected the administration’s plan.

Murray said in a statement that the decision Monday by the independent five-person Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was a “bureaucratic cop-out” and said that the commissioners “have totally avoided making a decision regarding the very urgent situation.”

Separately, the Ohio-based utility FirstEnergy said that the FERC order means that “the future of FirstEnergy’s competitive generating facilities remains challenged.”

FERC rejected a plan Monday by Energy Secretary Rick Perry that would have subsidized coal and nuclear power plants in the Midwest and eastern parts of the country, arguing that those plants would provide greater reliability and “resilience” in emergencies such as the extreme cold snap that hit much of the country over the past two weeks.

The commission said that the secretary had not demonstrated that coal and nuclear provide additional resilience, and that actions by the commission and regional transmission organizations were already providing resilience. During the bout of cold weather, the use of coal and nuclear remained constant while many natural gas plants switched to oil on a temporary basis. The only major outage was a transmission line failure that took a New England nuclear plant off line.

Opponents of Perry’s plan said that it would raise electricity rates for homeowners and largely benefit a handful of companies, including nuclear-intensive Exelon, Murray Energy and FirstEnergy, which has both coal and nuclear plants.

A bipartisan group of former FERC commissioners also wrote a letter in the fall saying that Perry’s plan would set back efforts to make electricity markets more competitive.

Murray insisted Tuesday that propping up coal and nuclear would lower rates. He said that while the current commissioners “sit on their hands and refuse to take the action” Perry recommended, “the decommissioning of more coal-fired and nuclear plants could result, further jeopardizing the reliability, resiliency, and security of America’s electric power grids even further.”

He said natural gas prices soared to 60 times normal levels during the cold snap. And Murray said that customers in South Carolina were asked to voluntarily cut back electricity usage.

Moderating energy demand, however, is a common tool for utilities seeking to avoid firing up idle coal plants. And the spike in natural gas prices had little effect on consumers because utilities overwhelmingly depend on long-term natural gas contracts.

FirstEnergy spokesman Jennifer M. Young said that the company would review FERC’s order.

“Baseload coal and nuclear plants have long played an invaluable role in a well-functioning electric grid, yet the markets do not adequately compensate these assets,” she said in an email. “Without timely action, more of these facilities will close prematurely, jeopardizing the ability to provide clean, reliable and affordable power to customers while harming economies across the region.”

Other major energy companies, however, led by the American Petroleum Institute, the Natural Gas Supply Association and renewable energy trade groups, applauded the FERC’s move. Dena E. Wiggins, president of the NGSA, said the FERC order “would have undermined competitive power markets and hurt consumers without bolstering reliability.”

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