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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump is coming up empty handed on his promises to bolster America’s ailing coal and nuclear power industries.

The big picture: For a president who has aggressively pushed the legal and political boundaries to make good on policy priorities, particularly immigration, the lack of action in this area is striking two years into Trump’s administration.

Between the lines: Political and legal issues are at play, according to people familiar with the dynamics.

  • Trump’s positions on immigration appeal to his supporters' emotions more than his positions on coal, and the issue cuts more deeply and widely across the president’s conservative base than coal. Nuclear, meanwhile, has never been a top-tier political concern for Trump.
  • White House officials have successfully argued that any big actions to prop up economically struggling coal and nuclear power plants would be woefully indefensible in court.

Where it stands: It’s a messy road to nowhere, for now.

  • Nuclear power and coal don’t share many attributes in common other than they’re both economically struggling for similar reasons: competition from cheap natural gas and, to a lesser extent, renewables.
  • On top of inaction, trade policies under consideration could make matters even worse for the nuclear industry — like new restrictions on uranium they use for fuel. (More on that later.)

For the last year and a half, Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been trying — but failing — to find a way to help the wave of ailing coal and nuclear power plants across the Eastern United States.

  • He asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent government agency, to take action. He was rejected.
  • He considered using a little-known law called the Defense Production Act to invoke national security to save certain plants. That’s been on ice for months after White House resistance.
  • More than a year ago, Bankrupt FirstEnergy Solutions asked Perry to keep open certain coal and nuclear plants in the name of national security. Representatives of the firm said they have no updates to share, and an Energy Department spokeswoman didn’t have a comment other than to say it’s still pending.

“I’ve thrown a lot of jello over at the wall on this one trying to find some solutions that we can all, or at least a majority of us can get behind to support that,” Perry said at an energy conference last month.

The other side: This is a triumph of a diverse and broad set of energy interests — ranging from natural gas to wind — that rallied together to oppose the administration's efforts, arguing any such moves would upend market forces and could increase electricity prices for consumers.

The Trump administration is taking some steps to help nuclear power and coal, such as research investments for new technologies and unprecedented regulatory rollbacks.

  • A White House official said coal has been buoyed by numerous executive actions the administration has taken and regulations it is repealing, particularly at the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • The official also pointed to the funding of Energy Department initiatives and laws streamlining permitting processes that president has backed to help nuclear power.
  • But these steps are just not significant enough to change the prevailing declining direction of either sector, and especially the plants under economic duress.

Meanwhile, the nuclear power industry is now among the long list of sectors concerned about Trump’s protectionist trade agenda.

  • The administration is considering imposing quotas requiring a certain percentage of uranium — the fuel used in nuclear plants — to be sourced domestically in the name of national security.
  • A coalition of utilities say such a move could hurt the very same economically struggling reactors Trump says he wants to help, pushing them over the edge and forcing them to shut down.
  • The Commerce Department faced a Sunday (yesterday) deadline to send its recommendation on the matter to Trump. He now has 90 days to decide.

What we’re watching: As Trump’s reelection campaign picks up, the president could likely raise the issue of saving coal and nuclear plants again, which puts policy experts within the administration in a bind because they’ve exhausted most options.

  • “They’re totally stuck. I don’t know how they’re going to fix it,” said one person familiar with the dynamics. “The likelihood that Trump comes back to them at some point and says ‘do something’ is pretty high.”

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Starbucks drops worker vaccine mandate after SCOTUS ruling

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Starbucks announced in a memo to employees Tuesday that it has dropped plans to implement a vaccine mandate for all U.S. workers, AP reported on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The company's decision comes in response to the Supreme Court's ruling last week to block the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

2 hours ago - World

Netanyahu plea talks enter crunch time

Netanyahu (right) meets with his lawyer ahead of a court hearing last February. Photo: Reuven Casto/Pool/AFP via Getty

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's opposition leader and former prime minister, is negotiating a possible plea deal over the corruption charges against him, but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit appears to be toughening his terms.

Why it matters: Mandelblit leaves office on Jan. 31. Negotiations could continue beyond that point, but the next attorney general may be less interested in quickly reaching a deal.

2 hours ago - Health

Omicron hits American hospitals disproportionately hard

Expand chart
Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

America is seeing more COVID hospitalizations than other wealthy countries during the Omicron surge, according to Our World in Data.

Why it matters: Vaccines keep the vast majority of COVID cases out of the hospital, but vaccination rates are also lower in the U.S. than these other countries.

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