If you ain’t Firstenergy, you’re last

Source: By Kelsey Tamborrino , Politico • Posted: Monday, April 2, 2018

Rick Perry has a decision to make, and FirstEnergy Solutions better hope he makes up his mind quickly. The company’s eyebrow-raising request for the Energy secretary to invoke his emergency powers in order to keep its coal and nuclear plants online came just days before an April 1 deadline to make a $99 million bond payment that most analysts expect to trigger a bankruptcy filing. The company’s application to the Energy Department blasted PJM Interconnection and FERC for failing to ensure that coal and nuclear plants make enough money to stay afloat – an assertion PJM promptly rejected. Perry’s grid resilience proposal would have provided a big boost for FirstEnergy Solutions’ coal and nuclear plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio, but FERC rejected that approach in January. Now, the request for an emergency order gives him another shot to bail out the company – a move that would also likely pay dividends for Murray Energy, which supplies coal to several of the plants and whose CEO Bob Murray was a major Trump backer.

Is that a yes? Perry’s official Twitter account “liked” a tweet from Bloomberg’s Catherine Traywick on the FES letter, prompting some to speculate he’s on board. DOE spokeswoman Shaylyn Hines said the application “will now go through our standard review process.”

Still, the reaction to FES’ proposal has been swift and full of condemnation. “We repeatedly disagree with them on the fundamental assertion that there is an emergency,” said Vincent Duane, PJM’s senior vice president and general counsel. And the American Petroleum Institute – whose members in the natural gas industry are not eager to see their competitors get a bailout – also blasted the unorthodox move. “FirstEnergy’s latest attempt to spread a false narrative surrounding the reliability of the electric grid is nothing more than a ruse that will force Main Street consumers to pay higher prices,” said Todd Snitchler, director of API’s Market Development Group.

It looks grim at DOE, too: Bruce Walker, assistant secretary for the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, told reporters in February that “we would never use a 202 to stave [off] an economic issue. It’s not designed for that.” And Travis Kavulla, a Montana regulator and a former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, said the process FES is asking for would probably not happen fast enough – it usually takes six months to a year. “The type of relief they’re asking for is not very easy to administer,” he said. “… You can’t wave your hand and say, ‘Let it be so.'”

We’ll see you in court: But if Perry does decide to move forward with an emergency order, the Sierra Club is ready to sue. “FirstEnergy is trying every trick in the book to get Rick Perry and the Trump administration to stop the rapid growth of the clean energy economy, boost their own profits and drag us backward into the past yet again, but they will not succeed,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign.

In the end, almost nothing DOE, FERC or PJM can do for FES will be enough to prevent bankruptcy, analysts say. “This really doesn’t change my opinion. I believe a FES filing for bankruptcy is imminent,” said Charles Fishman, an equity analyst for Morningstar Research Services. “There is just too much cheap natural gas in Pennsylvania and Ohio.”