West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin asked President Donald Trump on Thursday to use his authority under a Cold War-era national security law to keep coal and nuclear power plants from closing down.
Manchin, a Democrat, urged Trump to use the Defense Production Act of 1950 to keep power plants from shutting down. Grid operators and energy experts have warned closing coal and nuclear plants pose a threat to grid reliability, especially in the face of extreme weather like the recent “bomb cyclone.”
“As I have discussed with you and Secretary [Rick] Perry previously, many coal-fired units are currently at risk of closure or retirement,” Manchin wrote in a letter to Trump.
“As recent extreme weather events show, the loss of these units poses a significant risk to the electric grid,” Manchin wrote. “Coal-fired and nuclear power plants provide resilient and reliable power that delivers when the bulk power system is put to the test.”
Manchin’s request for an expansion of executive authority is apparently being considered by the White House, four officials familiar with such discussions told Bloomberg. White House officials are considering ways to aid ailing coal and nuclear industries that would survive the courts.
The Defense Production Act was signed into law at the outset of the Korean War and gives the president the power to effectively take control of private industry for national defense purposes.
Former President Harry Truman used the law to institute wage and price controls, and to mandate production for private industry. The law has since been amended, but the law still classifies energy as a “strategic and critical material” the president can control for a limited time.
Trump already used a provision to the Defense Production Act in June targeting critical technology in the aerospace industry. Though, using it to keep power plants open without a declared war or national emergency would be a stretch, experts say.
“This would extend the statute far beyond how it’s ever been used before,” Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard University, told Bloomberg.
“This statute did not contemplate the sort of use that apparently now the administration is considering,” Peskoe said.
The Trump administration has been bombarded with requests to keep coal and nuclear power plants humming in the face of a wave of expected premature retirements.
U.S. Energy Information Administration data show nearly 15 gigawatts of generation capacity is slated for closure in 2018, mostly from coal. A wave of nuclear power plant closures are expected in the following years.
FirstEnergy Corp. announced the closure of two Ohio nuclear plants and another one in Pennsylvania by 2021. The company asked Energy Secretary Perry to use emergency powers to keep the plants open.
It’s unclear what Perry will decide, but a proposed regulation the secretary submitted aiming to keep coal and nuclear plants open was rejected by federal energy regulators earlier this year.
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