Energy Secretary Rick Perry defended his department's proposal, telling a House energy subcommittee that the country must strengthen its systems for delivering power. The plan would reward nuclear and coal-fired power plants for adding what it calls reliability to the nation's power grid.
"I don't think any of you want to have to stand up in front of your constituents and explain to people why the decision had to be turning our lights on and keeping our family warm," Perry told lawmakers.
"If the wind quits blowing, if the sun quits shining, if the gas transmission line is corrupted in some way, there's still people who are going to get power," the former Texas governor said. Democrats on the panel didn't buy that argument, saying the agency's plan was simply a way of aiding two ailing branches of the energy industry.
"Under the guise of a crisis of grid reliability, this proposal props up coal and nuclear generation," said New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Pallone said he was formally asking the Energy Department to provide records of how it developed the plan "that seems directed at helping a select group of favored energy sources."
During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly voiced support for the coal and nuclear industries. Coal use has diminished as reliance on natural gas and other less expensive sources of energy have proliferated, and nuclear energy faces problems like where to store radioactive waste.
Manufacturers and other critics say there is no evidence of a threat to the grid's day-to-day reliability that would justify the emergency action Perry is seeking. In an August report commissioned by Perry, the Energy Department said "reliability is adequate today despite the retirement of 11 percent of the generating capacity available in 2002, as significant additions from natural gas, wind, and solar have come online since then."
Perry said the plan is needed to help prevent widespread outages such as those caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and an extreme cold snap in 2014 called the "polar vortex" in the Eastern and Central U.S.
The agency plan aims to reverse a steady tide of retirements of coal and nuclear plants, which have lost market share as natural gas and renewable energy flourish. It would compensate power plant owners that maintain a 90-day fuel supply protected against the elements and is expected to cost billions of dollars.
Perry's plan coincides with Trump's vow to achieve U.S. "energy dominance" while ending what he and other Republicans call a "war on coal" waged by the Obama administration. Perry has said he wants to "make nuclear energy cool again."
Environmental groups say the plan would boost dirty fuels and harm consumers, while the energy industry warns about interference in the free market and manufacturers complain about higher energy prices that could be passed on to consumers.
The Industrial Energy Consumers of America, a trade group that represents Dow Chemical, Koch Industries, U.S. Steel Corp. and other manufacturing giants, said in a letter to Congress that the proposal could "destroy competitive wholesale electricity markets, increase the price of electricity to all consumers" and harm U.S. manufacturing.
Coal and nuclear groups have praised the plan. National Mining Association President and CEO Hal Quinn called Perry's action "a long-overdue and necessary step to address the vulnerability of America's energy grid."
The Energy Department seeks final action by mid-December, although industry groups and some members of Congress have pushed for a delay. Perry also defended his costly travel on private and government planes, saying such flights are sometimes needed for him to do his job. He said his department has energy labs and other facilities in remote places and he receives frequent invitations from lawmakers to visit their states.
"I suppose you could even hitchhike" to some places, Perry jokingly said. He said that while he tries to travel in a "thoughtful and most reasonable way," he sometimes "may have to do it in a way that does expend some taxpayers' dollars."
The Energy Department has said Perry has taken at least six trips on government or private planes costing an estimated $56,000. The trips have included visits to facilities in Washington, Idaho and New Mexico.
Pallone asked the Energy Department's inspector general to investigate Perry's travel. He said the flights are "of particular concern given the extreme budget cuts the Trump Administration proposed." Several Trump administration officials' travel expenses have recently attracted public attention.