As the clock ticks down on Commissioner Neil Chatterjee's time at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the task of finding a replacement commissioner is growing more urgent for industry and environmental groups. But in Congress, the appointment is being less closely watched than by the industry, despite its potential to accelerate Democratic priorities on renewables integration, fossil fuel infrastructure and more, according to one Democratic representative.
"I would love to tell you that I work at an institution [that] cares so deeply about climate and environment and understands that FERC is the linchpin in bringing this forward," Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill, told Utility Dive in an interview.
But despite some Congressional leaders' understanding of how important transmission and relieving interconnection queues is to cleaning up the power grid and addressing climate change, "there's a lot less chatter — at least that I hear — about the importance of shifting from a two-to-three to three-to-two majority on FERC, and how much that can impact climate," Casten said, referring to the potential shift to a Democratic majority on the commission. "I wish there was, because I think it's going to be a hugely important appointment. But FERC is one of those things that has a very high importance-to-congressional-attention ratio."
The question of who will fill Chatterjee's seat took on new urgency last week as the commissioner announced that July would, probably, be his last open meeting.
In a thread of tweets, Chatterjee noted that FERC Chair Richard Glick, Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, whom he formerly worked for, and Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm had all encouraged him to stay on until his successor is confirmed.
"There's no doubt FERC is best at full strength," he said in a tweet. But, he added, he is focused on doing what's best for his family.
"[T]here's a lot to weigh and I haven't yet determined my departure date," he said. "BUT, with no open meeting in August, next week's meeting is likely to be my last. Tune in for what MAY be your last chance to (pretend to) laugh at my dad jokes."
The Biden administration has yet to send a nominee to the Senate, where the candidate would need to be approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is the ranking member. Any candidate would also need to be approved by the full Senate.
Massachusetts State Rep. Maria Duaime Robinson, D, has been vetted by the White House, and is a favorite among some renewable energy stakeholders, but other names have been floated as well, including Willie Phillips, the chairman of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia; Lauren Azar, who previously served as a senior adviser to former Energy Secretary Steven Chu and before that was a Wisconsin Public Service Commissioner; and Tom Dalzell, a former International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245 business manager.
The fifth commissioner will be a crucial swing vote to a commission that is currently majority Republican, with Commissioners Chatterjee, Mark Christie and James Danly.
Glick, a Democrat, Commissioner Allison Clements and Chatterjee have found common ground on issues primarily related to lowering market barriers for clean energy technologies. Chatterjee has also indicated he would be interested in working on transmission reform, and supported the commission conducting a greenhouse gas emission impact review. But, he voted in favor of another pipeline that the two Democrats on the commission said warranted another review. His open seat could be critical for pipeline reviews and implementing the commission's landmark Order 2222, intended to lower barriers for distributed energy resources, sources have previously said.
But Casten said the opportunity to add a third Democrat could allow the commission to go beyond that; the possibilities are endless, and could be critical to the fight against climate change, he said.
"If I was the FERC chairman right now — so if I was Mr. Glick, but I thought the way that I do as Sean Casten — I would have a whole set of hearings that I would be thinking about introducing once I had the majority, and I would be keeping my mouth shut about it right now," he said.
Although the White House's "whole of government" approach to climate change is important, it can only go so far, he said. The White House's jurisdiction doesn't extend to states, nor does it extend to FERC, which is an independent agency, rendering President Joe Biden almost unable to touch the electric sector at all, said Casten. That leaves FERC nominations as one of the only tools the White House has jurisdiction over when it comes to grid policy.
"It's one of those things that I think about every day in this job, because I'm here because I care about energy policy, and I come at it from the electric sector," said Casten, who had a long career in the power sector before coming to Congress.
"FERC has the potential to be the single most impactful agency in the government as far as dealing with the climate crisis," he said. "And if we linger without the nominee being named or without political pressure being applied to get the nominee confirmed, it would raise concerns about whether folks really understand that at the level that I think they need to right now."
Other groups have also begun to lobby to ensure their priorities are considered when it comes to naming a new nominee.
In a July 1 letter sent to Manchin and Barrasso, the Electric Power Supply Association, Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance and R Street Institute all called for the chair and ranking member to make sure the next nominee is committed to competitive wholesale energy markets.
"FERC is dealing with many critical issues within its jurisdiction — from permitting energy infrastructure projects to dealing with an ever-evolving cybersecurity threat landscape — all at a time of unprecedented change in the composition and operation of the electric grid," the groups wrote. "We believe competitive wholesale electricity markets will facilitate this change while ensuring consumers still receive highly reliable and affordable electricity."
A coalition of environmental groups in June sent a letter to President Biden urging him to forward a nominee who is committed to "rapidly" transitioning the United States off fossil fuels entirely.
"A growing body of climate scientists and energy researchers are warning that we cannot keep developing new fossil fuel resources and infrastructure if we want to have any hope of avoiding runaway climate chaos," the groups wrote, referencing a report from the International Energy Agency that finds the world needs to stop investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Confirming a nominee quickly is becoming "increasingly urgent," said Jeff Dennis, managing director and general counsel at Advanced Energy Economy in an email, given the many pending issues in front of the commission that "are foundational to the clean energy transition."
"FERC's ability to actually make decisions on those things — to issue orders and conduct rulemakings — requires a full complement of commissioners," he said. "Without a full Commission, items simply stall, with real impacts to the development of advanced energy resources."
Correction: Sen. Barrasso represents Wyoming. A previous version misidentified the state