Environment

Coal lobbyists have enlisted the help of Kentucky state utility regulators in asking federal officials to weigh in on a Trump administration plan to bail out coal-fired power plants.

The Kentucky Public Service Commission has joined five other states in writing letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as part of a campaign orchestrated by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. The letters were first reported by Bloomberg.

The Kentucky letter sent last month asks federal authorities to make a decision on the Trump administration’s plan, but doesn’t take a firm stance on the plan itself. A commission spokesman said the timing of the letter may have been influenced by the coal industry lobby, but the content of the letter was drafted in-house.

“What that letter simply states is: make a decision because it’s important to have some sort of regulatory certainty,” said Andrew Melnykovych, Kentucky PSC spokesman.

Consumer advocates with the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog group, say the letters call the impartiality of regulators into question. They say the letters from state regulators are an effort to pass off the coal industry’s words as the regulators’ own without disclosing where the ideas originated.

Letters signed by utility regulators in Montana, Tennessee and Alabama used the exact same language as suggested by the coal lobbying group, according to records obtained by Joe Smyth, a spokesman for the Energy and Policy Institute. Other states, including West Virginia and Wyoming sent similar letters.

“This is a really troubling violation of public trust,” Smyth said. “I think that the people charged with ensuring fair electricity rates are doing the bidding of coal mining companies.”

Trump’s Plan

The era of coal power is on the decline as electricity demand levels off and older power plants are increasingly out-competed by natural gas and renewables, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A draft of the plan from the Department of Energy calls for propping up the flailing industry, arguing the move is necessary to maintain grid resiliency and reliability. The plan would allow system operators to buy coal and nuclear electricity for up to two years to forestall retirements.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hasn’t taken action on the plan since the summer of 2018.

Opponents say the plan amounts to a subsidy for coal-fired power plants to keep the coal industry afloat as long as possible. Smyth called the letters a “last ditch effort” to bring the proposal back.

“It’s really a pretty blatant effort to keep coal plants online,” Smyth said.

The Kentucky Public Service Commission says it needs an answer from FERC in order to review the long-term plans of Kentucky utilities.

“Until you know what the rules of the game are going to be at the federal level, it’s very difficult, both for the utilities to do the planning and for the commission to evaluate those plans,” Melnykovych said.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.