Senate committee set to grill Trump's FERC nominees

Dive Brief:

  • The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has scheduled a hearing Thursday morning to question President Trump's two nominees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
  • Robert Powelson is a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, and Neil Chatterjee serves as longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
  • FERC currently has three vacant seats, and has been without quorum for months. Additionally, Commissioner Colette Honorable has announced that she will leave the agency when her term expires next month.

Dive Insight:

FERC has been without a quorum for almost four months now, since Commissioner Norman Bay left in February. The Trump administration has been slow to nominate replacements, but tomorrow morning lawmakers will have a chance to question two men who could flesh out the commission.

Also on the hot seat will be Dan Brouillette, Trump's nominee to be Deputy Secretary of the Department of Energy.

Chatterjee helped write energy and environmental policy in the Senate and coordinated challenges to the Clean Power Plan while working as an aide to McConnell. Before that, he worked as a lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a trade group for power co-ops that generally advocates for states' rights in energy policy.

Powelson has served on the Pennsylvania PUC since 2008 and last year was elected president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), a national advocacy group of state regulators. He lobbied the White House in January to to prioritize power and gas infrastructure replacement, move forward with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and modernize the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978.

The nomination hearing comes as FERC considers how to reconcile state energy goals with wholesale power market operations. At a technical conference earlier this month, sector stakeholders told the commission that renewable energy mandates and nuclear subsidies are pushing down energy market prices, potentially pushing unsubsidized generation offline and threatening reliability. 

Generators and clean energy advocates alike agreed that a starting point could be to put a robust price on carbon in the nation's wholesale power markets. Both sitting FERC commissioners expressed interest in the idea, but it is not known how the two Trump nominees view the issue. Questions on the topic are expected in the hearing. 

The nomination also comes amid heightened political pressure on FERC from environmental activists, particularly anti-pipeline protestors. 

Last week, a coalition of national and regional organizations asked Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chairman of the Senate energy committee, to postpone the hearing. The group, Green America, said it was concerned about possible abuses of power at FERC as well as investigations into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

The groups say FERC has misused its authority regarding the approval process for pipelines, essentially "rubber stamping" pipelines that have negative impacts on health and safety.

"FERC has already demonstrated itself to be an agency that misuses its authority to strip the American people of their legal rights and to lightly turn the power of eminent domain over to private pipeline corporations," Maya van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said in a statement.

Supporters of the agency argue that its narrow mandate precludes it from considering impacts other than the safety and market impacts of interstate pipelines, such as climatic consequences. 

That was set to change before Trump was elected. In August of last year, President Obama issued guidance requiring federal agencies to consider greenhouse gas emissions when evaluating any federal action under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which governs FERC pipeline approvals. 

Trump rescinded that guidance in an executive order in March, however, and it is unlikely the two nominees will look to expand FERC's mandate to consider carbon when siting pipelines. 

The hearing will be held at at 9:45 a.m. ET. A live webcast will be located here.

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Filed Under: Generation Transmission & Distribution Regulation & Policy
Top image credit: Flickr; USCapitol