- Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chairman Neil Chatterjee drew criticisms of politicizing the traditionally fuel-neutral agency after tweeting on Thursday with a hashtag for "freedom gas," a concept coined earlier in the week by Energy Secretary Rick Perry for U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) exported to Europe.
- Perry used the term to describe U.S. exports to parts of Europe that would otherwise rely on a Russian supply of LNG. While the branding has been criticized by clean energy advocates, others have viewed Chatterjee's use of the moniker as an "unseemly" promotion of the Trump administration's political agenda.
- Chatterjee deflected the criticism, noting that he has been outspoked on gas exports for a long time. "My message on the geopolitical and environmental importance of LNG exports should not be conflated with my obligations under the law as we process [individual] applications," Chatterjee told Utility Dive in an email statement.
When Chatterjee repeated Energy Secretary Perry's "freedom gas" concept on Twitter, it drew criticisms from groups such as the Sierra Club, which said that FERC's neutrality had been compromised.
Facts are facts. @ENERGY is right - it is #FreedomGas! #LNG is good for the American people, our allies abroad & for U.S. geopolitical interests. #FreedomMolecules #Energytwitter #FERC— Neil Chatterjee (@FERChatterjee) May 30, 2019
Chatterjee told Utility Dive this has been his view for a long time, independent of the administration's work.
"DOE's message is a valid one, based on facts. And, quite frankly, I think it's important to recall that this isn't an issue that just cropped up in the past two years; these considerations were at the core of why the prior Administration was supportive of LNG exports as well," Chatterjee said. "I hope at the end of the day, this has opened up our dialogue a bit more and leads people to do a little more research on the subject and begin to gain a better understanding of just how significant [LNG exports are]."
But the criticisms went beyond environmental groups, where they might be expected, with several attorneys in the FERC realm also noting that Chatterjee's tweet politicized FERC's work.
"I think it is unseemly for the Chair of FERC to be promoting this political agenda that is focused on exporting natural gas... without filter or qualification," Joel Eisen, energy law professor at the University of Richmond, told Utility Dive.
FERC has a direct role in increasing LNG exports, having approved four terminal expansions in the past year, with Chatterjee touting the importance of the projects at FERC's public meeting in May.
"His tweets, I think, reflect some concerns about FERC's alignment with political administrations ... which I think in the past FERC has tried to steer clear of those sort of political aspects of being a regulator in Washington DC," Ari Peskoe, director of Harvard University's Electricity Law Initiative, told Utility Dive. "In the past couple of years, I think FERC has become a more political animal in some ways, and... this tweet is just sort of evidence along those lines."
Recent "orders approving various LNG facilities may be challenged in the DC Circuit" Court of Appeals, Peskoe said, adding that he didn't "see Chatterjee's tweets being a particularly strong legal point" in such cases.
Chatterjee reiterated in his statement about the "now-viral" freedom gas dialogue that FERC makes independent case-by-case decisions on LNG terminal applications.
"These things are typically challenged," Peskoe said, referring to the FERC decisions. "If they want to bring up these tweets... in their brief, that's fine, but I don't think that's the winning legal argument. The orders are going to stand or fall on their own, on what's in the orders, not based on what the Chairman tweeted this week."
Former Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities Chair Angela O'Connor opposed the Administration's export initiative, saying there should be a greater federal focus on domestic access to natural gas.
"America's selling its cheap, natural gas to Europe. How about America using some of that cheap natural gas instead of us importing gas from Russia, right into Boston?" O'Connor told Utility Dive, referring to the Russian tanker that delivered LND during the 2018 cold snap. "That's disturbing to me for so many reasons."
O'Connor said domestic natural gas was "badly in need of better PR," at an April natural gas roundtable in Washington, DC.