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Trump's new pick to lead DOE likely to sustain support of fossil fuels, nuclear

President Donald Trump's pick to replace Secretary of Energy Rick Perry when he steps down later this year, Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette, will likely continue support of the nation's coal, gas and nuclear sectors.

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Dan Brouillette, deputy secretary of energy
Source: U.S. Department of Energy

Under Perry, the U.S. Department of Energy led controversial initiatives to support existing coal and nuclear plants while also rolling out funding to develop new technology that would encourage the construction of coal and nuclear plants. Despite the agency's efforts and the administration's broader attempts to reverse Obama-era restrictions on coal mining and burning, coal demand has continued to fall since Trump was elected.

Coal and nuclear plants are closing prematurely and at a rapid rate, and "we have to stop that," Brouillette told a group of state lawmakers gathered in Kentucky in late September.

"If they are allowed to succeed — if they take America from 'all of the above including renewables' to 'none of the above except renewables' — they will destroy our ability to run our economy when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow," Brouillette said.

Perry rolled out a proposal to incentivize "fuel-secure" power plants in 2017, but that pro-coal, pro-nuclear effort has yet to manifest in actual policy. Meanwhile, in the U.S., natural gas and renewable energy capture more market share as coal plants retire. Most recently, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee called for a "consensus" on how grid resilience should be defined before advancing on a proceeding examining risks for the electrical grid and how to address those risks.

Since FERC declined to take immediate action on Perry's proposal, the DOE's publicized efforts related to coal primarily focused on supporting technology that may increase the likelihood of building new coal plants in the U.S.

Innovation aimed at energy abundance

To truly appreciate the amount of energy now available in the U.S., one must think back to when the country was in a panic over an oil shortage during the 1970s, Brouillette said. At the time, the government was talking about peak oil and the end of abundant energy, he told the gathering of the Southern States Energy Board in Louisville, Ky.

"I was growing up in Louisiana, and I remember distinctly sitting in the backseat of my father's car. It was hot as heck, south Louisiana, and we were sitting in a gas line," Brouillette said. I remember asking him: 'We're from Louisiana, everybody I know, everybody's dad works in the oil business. Why are we waiting in line for gasoline?' ... It was one of those moments that you remember as a kid, and it's just stuck with me."

However, the "American spirit is full of innovation," Brouillette said, and citizens began developing innovative technology that would unlock new sources of energy in the country. Many of those developments, such as hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, have roots that extend back to the DOE.

Now, while Brouillette is supportive of technologies related to nuclear energy, renewable energy generation and battery storage, he wants to direct the agency's drive for innovation into a range of fields, including the coal sector.

"We are leading every nation, both in the production of oil and gas and in the reductions in energy-related carbon emissions," Brouillette told the lawmakers. "We're going to continue to do that with the adoption of technologies like carbon capture, utilization and storage."

Finding a place for fossil fuels

U.S. power plant emissions of carbon dioxide have dropped off significantly in recent years, largely due to utilities replacing coal plants with other sources of generation capacity, primarily natural gas-fueled power plants. While gas emits far less carbon dioxide than coal when burned, some environmental groups are beginning to focus on the fuel as power generators transition away from coal.

"When a patient comes in, do you treat cancer to get rid of cancer, or do you just simply shoot the patient? Clearly, you don't do the latter," Brouillette said. "In the case of coal, and in the case of other technologies that others have felt are producing too many emissions, the first reaction is to get rid of the fuel source. We have to change our mindset around that."

The DOE is working on research supporting the construction of small, modular coal plants capable of more flexible and efficient operations, similar to how natural gas plants run today. While the administration generally avoids deciding which technologies are good or bad, it does believe in advancing research and projects that could catalyze the deployment of new energy technology. The agency is expecting to "leapfrog" private sector development of technologies for burning coal more cleanly and putting those into the marketplace, Brouillette told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

"We're exploring several technologies that really get at the heart of what the issue is with coal, and that's emissions," he added.

The agency spends roughly $16 billion on basic science research annually and should direct some of that toward technologies that would lower the carbon dioxide emissions produced by coal and natural gas, Brouillette said.

"That's the approach we're going to take in the Trump administration," Brouillette said in Louisville. "If our ultimate aim is energy security and true economic security, we have to have all these fuels."