President Joe Biden on Thursday announced plans to nominate Willie Phillips Jr., currently chairman of the District of Columbia Public Service Commission (PSC), to fill the vacant seat at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The choice is being closely watched, with the five-seat commission now split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, and Biden's choice received mixed reviews. Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, who chaired the commission during part of the Trump administration, stepped down at the end of August.
The commission will play a key role in implementing the Biden administration's clean energy and environmental goals. The White House has called for the U.S. to decarbonize its power sector by 2035 and to end carbon emissions across the economy by 2050.
Some environmental advocates had been hoping the next FERC commissioner would be more focused on consumer interests. Phillips' nomination is a "gift to corporate utilities and the fossil fuel industry," Drew Hudson, senior national organizer for Friends of the Earth, said in a statement.
Hudson noted that during his PSC tenure, Phillips voted to approve rate hikes, gas infrastructure and the merger between Washington, D.C.'s utility, Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco). and Exelon.
"Although if confirmed, Mr. Phillips would bring much needed racial diversity to the all-white and 4/5 male commission, his record of ignoring public comment and opposition from environmental justice advocates is a glaring red flag and demonstrates why he isn’t fit for this role," Hudson said.
The Solar Energy Industries Association, on the other hand, said it is confident that Phillips "will help us put the regulatory reforms in place we need, all while championing equity and creating billions of dollars in economic growth."
The White House called Phillips a "thoughtful and innovative leader in modernizing the energy grid." As PSC chairman, he has worked to implement D.C.'s 100% renewables goal and in June oversaw its approval of a multiyear rate increase for Pepco.
Prior to joining the PSC, Phillips served as assistant general counsel for the North American Electric Reliability Corp., and before that he worked for law firms advising clients on regulatory compliance, litigation and policy.
Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., who has called for Biden to quickly fill FERC's empty seat, said in a statement he was "thrilled" by Phillips' pending nomination.
"A speedy confirmation by the Senate will allow us to make the transmission and market reforms necessary to transition to cleaner, cheaper energy while growing our economy and creating jobs," Casten said.
SEIA also urged quick confirmation. "We are in a race against time, and we cannot delay this important pick," the group said.
Quick confirmation unlikely
However, with the U.S. Senate now focused on a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, observers say it could be months before it considers Phillips' nomination. That means FERC deliberations on key issues like transmission and natural gas infrastructure could wind up in a 2-2 deadlock until the seat is filled.
"There probably won't be any meaningful progress" on those issues until the next commissioner is confirmed, said John Moore, director of the Sustainable FERC Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's going to be a while."
Despite Hudson's concerns, Moore said it is too soon to say how Phillips will vote on the issues, particularly because "his background has been primarily with industry and the [D.C.] commission," with little experience on the consumer side of the equation.
"We just don't know much about where Phillips is on these issues, especially as they relate to the continuing transformation of the power grid," Moore said.
Phillips has the backing of state regulators.
“We wholeheartedly support the nomination of Chairman Phillips to serve as a FERC member," Greg White, executive director of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, said in a statement. "He possesses extensive knowledge of the critical issues facing regulators today ... There is no doubt that he will apply this balanced, thoughtful approach to his new role as a FERC commissioner."
The D.C. PSC and FERC consider some similar issues, Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program, said in an email. But, he added, "those issues come before those bodies in very different ways."
Noting that he has not closely followed the D.C. commission's work, Peskoe said PSC proceedings are often straightforward, where regulators are tasked with balancing utility revenue with consumer costs and benefits.
"The consequences of the PSC’s decisions are almost entirely local (particularly so for a small jurisdiction like DC)," Peskoe said. "Contrast that dynamic to FERC."
Major FERC issues today center on wholesale market tariffs and industrywide rulemakings. "The consumer cost implications are often speculative," said Peskoe, pointing to debates over the commission's minimum offer price rule. "Parties are not always neatly aligned, although certain industry segments often have similar interests. FERC orders have regional and often national significance."
Democrats must leverage a FERC majority, Casten says
If Phillips is confirmed, it will give FERC a Democratic majority for the first time in years, Casten noted.
The commission "must then leverage its majority to ensure that initiatives are in place to make further progress in our clean energy goals," Casten said. That would include "ensuring state renewable energy rules are integrated into regional markets and that uneconomic fossil fuel plants are subjected to the competitive pressures of a free market."
FERC is now "one step closer to having the full complement of commissioners needed to tackle the critical energy issues facing the U.S. today,” said Jeff Dennis, managing director and general counsel at Advanced Energy Economy, a trade organization representing a range of energy services and technologies.
“A commission that appreciates the value of new technologies that improve efficiency and reliability, and that is committed to modernizing wholesale markets and the transmission grid to capture that value, will be essential for the country to meet its energy goals," Dennis said.