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  August 21, 2017

Will Rick Perry Use Grid Study to Push Coal?

Sierra Club Senior Attorney Casey Roberts discusses a lawsuit to reveal the special interests behind DOE grid study currently being revised in favor of fossil fuel
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Casey Roberts is a Senior Attorney at the Sierra Club that advocates for renewable energy and energy efficiency throughout the central region of the country, and works on U.S. EPA rulemakings including the effluent limitation guidelines for coal plants and the Clean Power Plan. During her first few years at Sierra Club, she handled litigation involving coal-fired power plant in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Minnesota. Before she joined Sierra Club in 2011, Casey was a fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council, representing endangered fish in California rivers, and at Altshuler Berzon LLP, working on labor union, low-wage employment, and civil rights litigation.


SHARMINI PERIES: It's the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Lawsuits against the Trump Administration are many. Not only is the State of California suing the EPA for documents to determine whether head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has conflict of interest with his ties to the fossil fuel industry, this week the environmental group Sierra Club sued the U.S. Department of Energy for its secrecy on its ongoing power grid study and for the agency's repeated delays in providing information on its review of the massive U.S. electrical system. Critics say the study might be used to determine or undermine renewable energy sector in the U.S. and to prop up the fossil fuel and nuclear power interests affiliated with the Trump Administration.

With us to discuss the Sierra Club lawsuit against the DOE, from Denver, CO is Casey Roberts, who is a senior attorney with the Sierra Club. Thank you so much for joining us today, Casey.

CASEY ROBERTS: Hi, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, Casey, the Department of Energy has been studying the question of the reliability of the U.S. electrical grid at the command of the Secretary, Rick Perry. Bloomberg news managed to get a leaked copy of the draft of the report. Do we know what's in this leaked report?

CASEY ROBERTS: Yeah. I have reviewed the leaked report. It's a little over 200 pages, and some conclusions are actually consistent with the general consensus of grid experts around the country. For example, it finds that the retirement of so-called base load generating resources like coal and nuclear plants is actually caused by slow load growth and by low natural gas prices, as opposed to being driven primarily by renewable energy. It also finds that renewable energy does not in any way impair the reliability of the grid due to innovations in how those technologies can be operated. So it has a number of conclusions along those lines which are actually what you would expect to see from a grid expert.

SHARMINI PERIES: Why are they not releasing it, now that it's out there in draft form anyway? What are some of the concerns about what the government might do with this report that concerns you?

CASEY ROBERTS: Our understanding is that it hasn't been officially released yet because the political staff at the Department of Energy, Secretary Perry and his direct reports, haven't yet had a chance to review that report and its conclusions. Our concern is that, in fact, many of those very prudent and fact-based conclusions in the leaked draft report will not show up in the final version, and now our concern about that is based on in part on statements by some DOE spokespeople when asked about the draft report, saying that some of the statements in there were no longer in the current version. That's what we're hoping Sierra Club's lawsuit against the Department of Energy will get at some of the communications that Department of Energy political staff has been having with outside entities, such as those representing fossil fuel interests, and find out more about what kind of information they're getting and what kind of influence they're feeling.

SHARMINI PERIES: Shifting gears a bit, the West Virginia governor and coal billionaire Jim Justice, who actually crossed over from being a Democrat to being a Republican, has asked the Federal Government for $4.5 billion in annual subsidies to support the Appalachian Coal Industry, saying, "It's not a bailout," but that the coal is needed for the national security purposes, so I guess he's saying that it needs to be factored in in terms of the energy grid itself. Is there any evidence to suggest that coal and nuclear power are necessary for the grid's reliability?

CASEY ROBERTS: I have not seen any evidence to that effect. Most of the reports that I have read from well known experts say that the combination of renewable energy storage demands side management, and so on and so forth, along with increasing sophistication of grid operators, can provide for reliable service around the clock, year round, without the need for coal and nuclear plants.

SHARMINI PERIES: Tell us a little bit more about the Sierra Club lawsuit, and of course the one earlier as well, the Freedom of Information Act complaint that Sierra Club has also launched. Give us a sense of what these legal actions are and what you think you can attain by having these lawsuits.

CASEY ROBERTS: A couple of weeks after Secretary Perry ordered his staff to initiate this grid reliability study, Sierra Club submitted a Freedom of Information Act request asking for all communications between DOE staff and a long list of outside entities, trying to get at this question of who were they getting information from and how are they being influenced, and also which perspectives are they ignoring.

The Freedom of Information Act gives agencies like DOE 20 business days to respond to a request, and DOE has not done that. Their response was due at the end of May, and here we are at the end of August almost, and they have not given us any documents yet, or really given us any sense of when they're going to provide those documents, so we have filed a lawsuit against them for violating the Freedom of Information Act's deadlines.

It's a fairly simple lawsuit. The law on this is cut and dry that they have those 20 business days to respond, so that's why we filed a lawsuit in the interest of trying to get these documents as soon as possible, and if at all possible before or at the same time as the report is released.

SHARMINI PERIES: If you win the lawsuit, say you do get access to this information, what will you be doing with it?

CASEY ROBERTS: We'll very excitedly scour it, pull out kind of the interesting tidbits, and through a variety of blogs, news releases, reports, sort of summarize that information that we think is relevant for the public and for policy makers, and obviously try to do that as soon as we possibly can.

SHARMINI PERIES: One thing that's really interesting, Casey, is that the coal lobby seems to have been growing in power under the Trump Administration. Most economic forecasts say that the industry is doomed to other kind of infrastructure and the heavy machinery and so on that it needs in order to develop energy is really, even the market, even Wall Street is saying this is an industry that we will not invest in, yet a large part of the Trump Administration is focused on growing this sector instead of the renewable energy sector. Why does the current administration continue to prop up the fossil fuel industry in this way?

CASEY ROBERTS: It's based in large part on political influence that they've received from coal barons in Appalachia and in the West, and the utilities that run these coal-fired power plants that are simply afraid of change, and some of these states that have heavy reliance on the coal industry, they haven't positioned themselves for this new economy and this new renewable energy grid, so they're trying to hold back the tide, and using all the political influence they have with this administration in order to do so. It's really unfortunately that those states and those companies aren't being more forward thinking about what's going to be in their employees' and their citizens' best interests in the coming years.

SHARMINI PERIES: In states like West Virginia where there's a large number of people still suffering and families suffering because of lung disease and so on, is there a growing consciousness about the health impacts, environmental impacts of the coal industry and fossil fuel industry in states like West Virginia?

CASEY ROBERTS: I honestly don't know the answer to that question. That's not a state that I've really traveled to. I hear it's beautiful. I would love to do so, but I don't know that much. I guess some of the other congressional representatives from that state have come out publicly and said, "Hey, it's time for West Virginia to move on and for some of our political leaders to stop misleading people about coal coming back. But in terms of individuals in that state and how they're aware of coal's health effects, I really couldn't say. I think my colleague Mary Ann Hitt, who you may have spoken to previously or be aware of, she lives in West Virginia, and I think very knowledgeable about that issue.

SHARMINI PERIES: I was asking because first of all, I have family in West Virginia-


SHARMINI PERIES: Whose water was contaminated and have to find other sources of drinking water because of some of the activities that are going on in West Virginia, plus in states like Virginia where I was also on holiday recently, I see so many signs up in people's lawns and farmers' lawns saying, "No pipelines through here," and "No fossil fuels here," so there seems to be a growing awareness and consciousness on the part of the people living in these states, so the sort of washing over of saying that coal is actually okay, and coal can be clean coal and all of this kind of hogwash, I was wondering whether people are fighting against it in spite of what the governor or the EPA or the DOE or the Trump Administration might want to do instead.

Anyway Casey, I thank you so much for joining us today. You've shed a lot of light on what's developing in this area, and we'd love to have you back.

CASEY ROBERTS: Absolutely. Thank you very much for your questions.


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