Natural gas causing coal, nuclear shutdowns, gov. report says - Axios
Politics
Featured

Natural gas causing coal, nuclear shutdowns, gov. report says

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, right, talks with Sen. Joe Manchin, left, and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, outside the coal-burning Longview Power Plant in Maidsville, WV. Photo: AP / Michael Virtanen

The Energy Department's highly anticipated report on America's electricity grid is out, and our biggest takeaway is that it affirms generally accepted knowledge in the energy industry — cheap natural gas has been the primary factor causing coal and nuclear power plants to shut down over the last several years.

It also contradicts comments Energy Secretary Rick Perry has made suggesting federal subsidies for wind and solar help shut down coal and nuclear plants.

Bottom line: The report's findings, though not newsy in and of themselves, are notable because they show the Trump administration adhering to objective data despite rhetoric suggesting it might come to more politically driven results criticizing renewable energy.

Perry has read the study and is on board with its conclusions, an Energy Department official said: "You can talk about his rhetoric, but he told us he was happy with the report," the official said.

Here are the highlights, combed from the study itself and conversations with Energy Department officials:

  • The other factors beyond natural gas in shutting down a wave of coal and nuclear plants, in the order listed in the report: Stagnant electricity growth, environmental regulations and the rise of intermittent wind and solar resources.
  • The report says that the growth of renewable energy on the grid hasn't created any alarming problems, but that doesn't mean one can assume it won't in the future with greater penetration of renewables, so increased attention is needed.
  • The study doesn't recommend the Energy Department intervene in state energy mandates, an idea Perry floated a few months ago. The authors didn't seek to answer that question nor does Perry have any intention of usurping states' rights, an Energy Department official said.
  • One agency official expressed concern about how natural-gas plants don't have fuel on site, like coal and nuclear do, in case of emergency situations.
  • To the small extent climate change was part of the study's formation, the authors stressed that preserving America's existing fleet of nuclear power plants, which emit no carbon, was essential.
Yes, but: In a letter about the report also released Wednesday, Perry emphasized the factors of environmental regulations and subsidies and didn't mention natural gas, which by his own report's conclusions, is the biggest driving influence. "It is apparent that in today's competitive markets certain regulations and subsidies are having a large impact on the functioning of markets, and thereby challenging our power generation mix."

Between the lines: Emphasizing how natural gas is the driving influence changing the power grid doesn't jive with the Trump administration's positions bolstering natural gas. Omitting it in the rhetoric related to the report but noting it in the report itself shows the delicate balance the Energy Department is striking on the issue.

The report's recommendations are not as sweeping as some speculated, in an implicit nod to the fact a lot of what would need to happen to really change the power grid is not in the Energy Department's authority (it's largely Congress). The highlights:

  • The report encourages the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent government agency that reviews energy infrastructure, to speed up its efforts working with grid operators on energy pricing.
  • The report encourages the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, another independent agency that regulates the nuclear industry, to not "unnecessarily" add to the operating costs of nuclear plants.
  • The report encourages the Environmental Protection Agency to allow coal plants to improve efficiency without triggering new permitting requirements.
Get politics alerts
We'll email you whenever we publish an important politics story.
Submit
Featured

How the tax code is about to change

By the end of next week, the biggest rewrite of the tax code since 1986 is likely to reach President Trump's desk. These are the biggest changes on the way.

Featured

GOP releases final tax bill

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady was one of the main authors. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

House and Senate Republicans have released their tax conference report. (There's also a two-page summary.) It looks like it's on track to pass next week, now that key Senate holdouts — Sens. Marco Rubio and Bob Corker — have announced their support for the bill.

What's next: The House will vote on the bill on Tuesday, according to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and then the Senate will follow. House Republicans will meet on Monday night and Tuesday morning.

Three big things in the report:

  • The child tax credit has been made more refundable than in the Senate bill. It's now $2,000 per child, with $1,400 of this refundable for families who have no income tax liability.
  • The corporate rate will be 21% beginning in 2018.
  • The top individual rate is 37%. There are seven brackets, and the lowest rate is 10%.

The bottom line: House Speaker Paul Ryan said Republicans are "on the door step of something truly historic."

This story has been updated to add the date of the House vote and a link to the summary.

Featured

Federal judge blocks Trump from changing contraception rules

A month's supply of hormonal birth control pills. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli / AP

The Trump administration's decision to roll back access to birth control under the Affordable Care Act has been blocked temporarily by a federal judge in Pennsylvania, Buzzfeed reports. The new rules went into effect in October and allowed employers and universities to decline providing birth control coverage for "religious or moral" reasons.

Why it matters: The ruling is one of several recent court orders blocking a Trump administration law. Trump's series of travel bans as well as his order preventing transgender troops from serving in the military have also been halted in court.

U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone agreed to grant Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's motion for a preliminary injunction, ruling that the Trump administration’s decision could potentially result in “enormous and irreversible” harm to the women of Pennsylvania. The injunction is applicable to all 50 states.

What's next: The block will remain in place until all arguments in the case are heard, which means the ACA requirement that all employers pay for contraception will stay in effect in the interim.

The Pennsylvania ruling joins a handful of similar lawsuits, including one in California, filed against the Trump administration's contraception rules.

Featured

Bob Corker flips to "yes" on tax reform

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the only holdout on the Senate's initial tax bill, announced Friday that he will vote "yes" on the GOP's tax cuts bill, less than an hour after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he will also vote yes.

Why it matters: Corker's vote essentially cements the tax bill's passage before the Christmas deadline.

His statement:

"After many conversations over the past several days with individuals from both sides of the aisle across Tennessee and around the country — including business owners, farmers, chambers of commerce and economic development leaders — I have decided to support the tax reform package we will vote on next week.

"This bill is far from perfect, and left to my own accord, we would have reached bipartisan consensus on legislation that avoided any chance of adding to the deficit and far less would have been done on the individual side with items that do not generate economic growth.

"But after great though and consideration, I believe that this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive is one we should not miss. While many project that it is very possible over the next ten years we could be at least $500 billion short on a $43 trillion policy baseline, I believe this bill accompanied with the significant regulatory changes that are underway, and hopefully, future pro-growth oriented policies relative to trade and immigration , could have significant positive impact on the well-being of Americans and help drive additional foreign direct investment in Tennessee.

"In the end, after 11 years in the Senate, I know every bill we consider is imperfect and the questions becomes is our country better off with or without this piece of legislation. I think we are better off with it. I realize this is a bet on our country's enterprising spirit, and that is a bet I am willing to make."

Featured

Release of texts between FBI officials to media was unauthorized

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Photo: Andrew Harnik / AP

The Department of Justice said that some members of the media received early copies of the texts between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, and that the release was not authorized by the department, Business Insider reports.

Why it matters: The texts are part of an ongoing investigation; they were shared with lawmakers on Tuesday night, prior to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, and were shared with reporters afterwards. But DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said some reporters had already recieved them.

Featured

Rubio officially yes on tax bill

Sen. Marco Rubio Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Sen. Marco Rubio's office has confirmed to reporters that the senator will be voting for the GOP tax cuts bill now that the child tax credit has been enhanced to meet his standards.

Why it matters: This thing looks ready to pass.

Featured

White House says Western Wall will stay in Israel

Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a 2014 meeting in Israel. Photo: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO via Getty Images

A senior White House official told reporters today that the Trump administration believes the Western Wall in East Jerusalem will remain part of Israel in any future peace agreement with the Palestinians. The issue came up during a briefing to reporters on Vice President Mike Pence's upcoming visit to Israel.

Why it matters: The statement risks further infuriating the Palestinians at a time when the administration is trying to cool down the crisis created by President Trump's Jerusalem speech. The Western wall was occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 and was never recognized as part of Israel by any country around the world.

Context: During previous negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. supported the Israeli position that the Western Wall should stay part of Israel, but it was never articulated publicly.

What to watch: The official said Pence will visit the Western Wall during his trip to Israel, and he will do it as the vice president and not as a private citizen. "We cannot envision any situation under which the Western Wall would not [be] part of Israel," the official said. "But as the president said, the specific boundaries of sovereignty of Israel are going to be part of the final status agreement."

The bottom line: After the briefing ended, the White House official noted that the U.S. "cannot imagine Israel would sign a peace agreement that didn’t include the Western Wall."

What's next: In the meantime, White House special envoy Jason Greenblatt will arrive in Israel early next week. It is unclear whether Greenblatt is going to meet any Palestinian officials. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas announced he does not see the U.S. as an honest broker and said the Palestinians will not meet with Pence during his visit.

While in Israel, Greenblatt will meet Fernando Gentilini, European Union envoy for Middle East peace. The 28 leaders of EU member states announced yesterday they see Jerusalem as the shared capital of both Israel and Palestine — pushing back against Trump's announcement that the U.S. recognizes it as the capital of Israel.

The White House official added that given the timing, Greenblatt will stay on for Pence’s visit to provide any relevant support.

Featured

Law school is the popular choice again

Two law students hug after oral arguments in a moot court competition. Photo: Rogelio V. Solis / AP

The number of people planning to attend law schools next fall has increased by 12%, there have been 14% more law school applications and 23 law schools reported 40% increases in applications, according to data from the Law School Admission Council.

Why it matters: Interest in law school has been declining since before the recession, Wall Street Journal reports. Law school deans and advisors told WSJ that the upturn is at least in part due to the legal issues arising from Trump's administration, better discounts at law schools and a revived economy.

Featured

Tillerson breaks with Trump on North Korea for the second time this week

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged, for the second time this week, that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons and enter into negotiations with the U.S. and others, leaving room for a diplomatic solution.

Why it matters: Tillerson's rhetoric doesn't line up with the official position of the White House. President Trump has made clear that he doesn't think negotiations are a viable option in dealing with Pyongyang, and has instead focused on drawing attention to the strength of the U.S. military.

Tillerson's message to North Korea, made during a speech at a UN Security Council meeting Friday:

  • “We have been clear that all options remain on the table in the defense of our nation, but we do not seek, nor do we want, war with North Korea,” he said. “The United States will use all necessary measures to defend itself against North Korean aggression, but our hope remains that diplomacy will produce a resolution.”
  • "Our communication channels remain open. North Korea knows they're open. They know where the door is. They know where to walk through that door when they want to talk."
  • “It can reverse course, give up its unlawful nuclear weapons programs, and join the community of nations, or it can continue to condemn its people to poverty and isolation.”

Go deeper: Trump's gamble on North Korea

Featured

Ethics Committee is investigating a Democratic House member

Photo: Cliff Owen / AP

The House Ethics Committee announced today that it has opened an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada. A female staffer claimed earlier this month that Kihuen made inappropriate advances toward her during his 2016 House campaign.

Go deeper: The full story on the allegations against Kihuen.