As the Trump administration seeks to resuscitate the moribund American coal industry, it has decided to invoke “national security” as the justification for a plan to subsidize coal-fired power plants.
Three things are notable about the administration’s proposal. First, invoking “national security” has become a favored tool for getting around existing regulations, precedents and the Constitution. It’s also handy for labeling one’s opponents as unpatriotic in order to avoid a genuine discussion of the true purpose of a proposed action. Second, the coal industry used to be the one attacking renewable energy sources as too expensive to stand on their own without subsidies. As the cost of renewable energy has continued to plummet, the tables are now turning.
Third, the move has united an unlikely coalition in opposition that includes the oil and gas industry, anti-nuclear activists (since nuclear power plants are included in the subsidy plan), environmentalists and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which is dominated by Trump appointees. It takes amazingly bad policy to get an alliance like this together.
In asking whether the U.S. energy supply has become a national security problem, the administration takes on thorny definitional issues. What does the seemingly endlessly elastic term “national security” mean? The term has been used to justify U.S. military intervention in places ranging in size from Grenada to Iraq. It has been used as a justification for wholesale spying on every American with an internet connection or a cellphone. It has essentially become a Swiss Army knife for anything the government wants to do that isn’t quite legal or constitutional or that is at the very least contrary to obvious logic and precedents.
The administration’s plan is to invoke a wartime measure called the Defense Production Act to impose its will on the energy markets. The act was designed to harness necessary industrial production during wartime.
Subsidizing coal- and nuclear-generated electricity will hardly enhance U.S. security. Our central energy vulnerability is continuing substantial oil imports that make the country subject to political and military disruptions far away. And the overall threat to the United States and the world is dependence on all forms of the finite energy supply represented by fossil fuels which still supply 80 percent of society’s energy.
The fact remains that energy from fossil fuels will peak someday and then begin to decline. We are not ready for that day. The Trump coal plan rather than increasing our national security will actually diminish it as it moves money away from other energy sources—especially from renewable energy, which offers a genuine avenue for addressing the twin crises of climate change and fossil fuel depletion.
Photo: Coal worker in coal yard, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 1945. Dept of Energy (DOE) photo by Ed Westcott. Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coal_Worker_Coal_Yard_Oak_Ridge_(6993478968).jpg