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EDITORIAL

Coal may get undeserved boost after Mystic decision

The Mystic Generating Station, owned by Exelon Corporation.
The Mystic Generating Station, owned by Exelon Corporation.(Sarah Brezinsky for The Boston Globe)

The electric industry is following the fate of the Mystic Generating Station closely — and not out of concern for New Englanders’ power bills.

No, the move to help the Everett power plant is controversial because by accepting the premise of the Mystic rescue last week, federal regulators may be laying the groundwork for the coal bailout that the Trump administration still desperately wants.

For years, as coal has been battered by cheap natural gas, coal-burning plants have argued they should be compensated for the supposed security they provide. Gas and renewables might be cheaper, their argument goes, but they’re reliant on either interruptible deliveries from pipelines or cooperative weather. In contrast, coal plants (and nuclear reactors, which are tagging along for the regulatory ride as coal lobbies for help) can store months’ worth of fuel and run whenever they’re needed.

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has resisted that logic. Last year, when the administration proposed saving coal and nuclear on fuel security grounds, commissioners rejected the plan. Coal’s rapid collapse has continued apace.

But the pressure is clearly still on. After FERC defied last year’s request, one of the president’s coal-industry allies publicly urged him to fire four of the five commissioners. Then FirstEnergy Solutions, an owner of nuclear and coal plants in the Midwest, asked for urgent intervention . And a leaked document showed the White House is still angling to rescue nuclear and coal.

Nuclear does deserve help, but for a completely different reason: It doesn’t contribute to climate change. Coal plants, however, burn the dirtiest of fuels, and they can’t disappear fast enough.

With the Mystic decision, though, it seems as if the regulators are starting to wobble. Last week’s order explicitly supports a price on security. Mystic doesn’t burn coal, but it does burn liquefied natural gas, a form of cooled, highly condensed natural gas that can be kept on-site.

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One of the FERC commissioners tried to downplay Mystic’s potential implications, insisting the order was in response to New England’s unique conditions only.

“I recognize that today’s order will be injected into the national debate regarding the asserted need for subsidization of certain ‘fuel secure’ resources,” wrote Cheryl LaFleur, one of the Democratic appointees. “In my view, today’s order does not lend credence to a generic or national resilience need, or an approach to address that need.”

GOP appointee Neil Chatterjee, though, hailed the Mystic decision and looked forward to the “timely completion” of similar initiatives in other markets.

With such a coal-obsessed administration, a move like this might have come anyway. Still, the Commonwealth unwittingly played into Trump’s hands. By choosing to ignore bona fide fuel scarcity in New England, Massachusetts teed up a test case that may have grim environmental consequences in places where fuel security is no more than a pretext for making coal great again.

Correction: An earlier version of this story linked to and quoted the wrong statement by Commissioner Neil Chatterjee.