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DOE plan backing coal, nuclear faces pushback as Trump taps lobbyist for EPA

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DOE plan backing coal, nuclear faces pushback as Trump taps lobbyist for EPA

Natural gas and renewable advocates criticized the U.S. Department of Energy's push for a federal rule that would help struggling coal and nuclear plants this week, while the administration nominated a coal lobbyist to be deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry directed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue a rule that would let generators who have 90 days of on-site fuel supply fully recover costs if they are not subject to cost-of-service regulations. The rule would primarily prop up otherwise unprofitable coal and nuclear power plants.

The U.S. coal sector welcomed the move and encouraged FERC to act swiftly on Perry's request.

"We look forward to working with FERC and grid operators to quickly adopt long-overdue market reforms that value the coal fleet," said Paul Bailey, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

Peabody Energy Corp. released a statement in support of the DOE initiative as well. "America can learn the lessons of other countries, which demonstrate that overreliance on intermittent or expensive fuel sources can jeopardize what is a great national resource," President and CEO Glenn Kellow said in a prepared statement.

However, gas and renewable power producers blasted the DOE plan, saying it would upend competitive markets and amount to a de facto subsidy for coal and nuclear generation.

During an Oct. 3 hearing, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., asked industry witnesses if they supported FERC implementing the DOE's noticed of proposed rulemaking. The heads of the American Petroleum Institute, American Wind Energy Association, Solar Energy Industries Association and Energy Storage Association all said no.

"You want to allow the markets to compete and evolve and not pick one fuel source over another," American Wind Energy Association CEO Tom Kiernan said.

On the legislative side of the industry, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is sponsoring federal legislation to shore up coal miners' pension funds that could otherwise go bankrupt in the next few years.

"The bill we will introduce today, the American Miners Pension Act, protects the pensions of nearly 87,000 current beneficiaries and another 20,000 eligible coal miners with vested pensions," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., at a press conference in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 3.

Manchin said the bill would use some of the "excess funds" in the Abandoned Mine Land fund to support the 1974 United Mine Workers of America Pension Plan.

Some of those same lawmakers, as well as miners, are looking warily at David Zatezalo, a former Rhino Resource Partners LP CEO who was selected by the Trump administration to lead the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

"Mr. Zatezalo's tenure as a mining executive is checkered with violations of the same health and safety standards he'll be expected to enforce," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. "It appears President Trump has chosen yet another industry fox to guard the henhouse, again handing control of our government over to special interests at the expense of the American people."

When asked, during a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing Oct. 4, about one of his mines receiving a relatively rare notice from MSHA that its operations had been identified as a pattern violator, Zatezalo said he admits management at that operation were "not doing what they should have been doing."

"I was not proud of the fact that we got designated as a POV mine," Zatezalo said. "I replaced that management because I was not too happy with their performance and I had not been happy with them for some time."

Zatezalo said his focus in the office would be promoting "consistent enforcement" across MSHA regions, promoting new technologies and encouraging safer mining health and safety behaviors.

In an Oct. 3 notice in the Federal Register, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that the nation's mining industry faces barriers to the availability and implementation of safety technologies and announced plans to assess the market for electronic technology for underground coal mining health and safety.

Another coal advocate tapped to join the administration is Murray Energy Corp. lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, nominated this week to be deputy administrator of the EPA. The Sierra Club released a news release calling the nomination "absolutely horrifying" due to his connection to the coal industry.

Upcoming events

Surface Transportation Board: The board will hold a public listening session on CSX Transportation Inc.'s recent rail service problems on Oct. 11 at 9:30 a.m. in the Patriots Plaza I Building, 395 E St., SW in Washington, D.C.