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Coal Industry Pushed State Regulators to Lobby for Power Rescue

Ari Natter

(Bloomberg) -- A series of letters from state energy regulators asking the Trump administration to act on coal plant closures was orchestrated by a coal lobbying group, emails show, raising questions about the independence of the public service commissioners.

Utility commissioners in six states pressed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to act on an inquiry into whether coal plant retirements are threatening the electric grid. The state officials sent letters to FERC at the request of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, according to the emails and Jon McKinney, a consultant for the coal group working on the effort.

Emails from McKinney to the West Virginia Public Service Commission show that in some cases, the letters by state officials closely tracked a “sample letter” provided by the trade group, which represents mining companies such as Murray Energy Corp. and Consol Energy Inc., as well coal-burning utilities American Electric Power Co. and Southern Co.

The emails were provided to Bloomberg News by the Energy and Policy Institute, which obtained them through a public records request. Regulators in Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Tennessee and Wyoming wrote similar letters.

Coal in Control

At issue is whether FERC decides if any further action is needed to prop up the grid after spurning a previous request by the administration to rescue money-losing plants.

Watchdog groups such as Public Citizen say the coalition’s involvement in the letters “is a serious problem.”

“State regulators are not there to do the bidding of a coal association,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s energy program. “There appears to be evidence the coal industry is directing a campaign by state regulators to push FERC to provide market based subsidies to the coal industry.”

Coal States Urge Trump Administration to Tackle Plant Closures

McKinney, a former chairman of the Public Service Commission of West Virginia who now works as a consultant for clients that include the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said he didn’t do anything out of the ordinary.

“We were encouraging people on their own to write their own letters to ask FERC to make a decision,” McKinney said in an interview. “That’s all we asked them to do.”

According to the emails, McKinney emailed the West Virginia Public Service Commission over the summer with the subject line “Letter to FERC.”

“Given the importance of public utility commissioners, we hope that you and other commissioners will send a letter to FERC requesting that the Commission make a decision and issue an order as expeditiously as possible with regards to the resilience docket,” the email said.

Included with the email was the template of a sample letter asking FERC to make a decision in an expeditious manner, which noted that coal plants retirements are continuing in the absence of committee action.

McKinney set up a meeting with Charlotte R. Lane, the commissions’ chairman, the coalition’s president Michelle Bloodworth, and its chief policy officer Paul Bailey, according to the emails. The group also scheduled meetings with Austin Caperton, the head of West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, Mike Hall, chief of staff to West Virginia’s Governor Jim Justice, and Bray Cary, another adviser to Justice.

David Ellis, a consultant for the West Virginia Public Service Commission, said the group opted to write its own version of the letter requested by the coal lobby, and was simply re-stating a position it had already taken.

On August 26, Lane sent McKinney a one sentence email: “The letter went out today.”

--With assistance from Stephen Cunningham.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ari Natter in Washington at anatter5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net, Ros Krasny

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