President Donald Trump on Wednesday nominated Department of Energy official Bernard McNamee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), seeking to fill a vacant seat on the commission with an ally of its plans to aid struggling coal and nuclear plants.
McNamee, who heads the Department of Energy's Office of Policy, will fill a seat on FERC vacated by former Commissioner Robert Powelson, who stepped down in August. McNamee is expected to align closer with the administration's policy priorities than Powelson, who routinely criticized the administration's efforts to support uneconomic generators.
McNamee's nomination comes as FERC grapples with high-profile questions of grid resilience, pipeline approvals and state policy preferences while it waits for a coming plant bailout proposal from the White House. McNamee must be confirmed by the Senate to take his seat.
If McNamee is seated on FERC he could give the Trump administration a more consistent ally than the independent-minded Powelson, who retired from FERC in August to lead a water company trade group.
Already, McNamee has worked on one of the White House's most controversial proposals. Last year, he helped pitch the DOE's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR), which would have provided cost recovery to plants with 90 days of fuel onsite, pumping the plan at regulatory conferences and defending it in front of Senate lawmakers this July.
"A lot of the organized markets have distortions in them that aren't representative of an actual free-serving market, so the thought is you need to remove some of those distortions and get some more parity," McNamee said in response to a question from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
FERC unanimously rejected the plan in January, but McNamee's argument at the hearing echoes a frequent talking point from Secretary of Energy Rick Perry — namely that there is "no free market" in the energy industry, so saving uneconomic plants from retirement will not undermine market functions.
During the same hearing, McNamee also defended DOE's authority to keep plants online using its emergency authority under Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act, saying it has been used in a "variety of contexts," like the California energy crisis.
That section of the FPA is one avenue the administration could take to unilaterally bail out coal plants, according to a White House memo leaked this spring. McNamee's perspective on 202(c) could be material, since FERC sets the rates for emergency cost recovery if a generator and regional grid operator cannot agree.
McNamee has only been in his current role as the head of DOE's policy office since May. Before that, he headed the Tenth Amendment center at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank with ties to Perry.
During his time there, McNamee wrote an Earth Day op-ed for The Hill extolling the virtues of fossil fuels, writing that "some suggest that we can replace fossil fuels with renewable resources to meet our needs, but they never explain how."
Prior to the Texas foundation, McNamee was a deputy general counsel at DOE, chief of staff to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, and an aide to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
McNamee's nomination comes as FERC faces increasing skepticism toward its political independence after partisan comments made by the commission's chief of staff. Environmental groups said confirming Trump's pick could exacerbate those concerns and put FERC more firmly under the influence of the White House.
"FERC has a longstanding commitment to fuel-neutral regulation, but Mr. McNamee's past writings and career track record suggest that he would seek every opportunity possible to support fossil fuels," said John Moore, head of the Sustainable FERC Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. "He should be prepared to answer some very hard questions about his previous comments and positions, and how they would affect FERC independence."
Not all FERC-watchers criticized Trump's pick. Mike McKenna, the former leader of Trump's DOE transition team, said McNamee "is [a] good policy guy in a place that needs good policy guys."
"He's done traditional energy projects, he's done renewable projects (while working for Dominion)," McKenna told Utility Dive via email. "He's going to be in favor of more infrastructure, more LNG export terminals, necessary pipelines."
The former Trump transition official said he's known McNamee "on and off for 25 years" and the nominee may not move in lockstep with the administration.
"I know that everyone is going to want to focus on the [DOE's NOPR] petition, and that's fair," he wrote. "But the irreducible minimum is that everyone has a boss. The real question people should be asking is where does he stand on these issues going forward?"
McNamee will likely face tough questioning on coal and nuclear bailouts when he appears before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the first step in the FERC confirmation process. How he will respond remains to be seen, but the coal lobby appears optimistic about the nominee.
"FERC has a critical role in assuring that wholesale markets value resilience attributes, especially fuel security," said Michelle Bloodworth, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), in a statement. "McNamee's background and experience at the state and federal levels make him well qualified to be the next FERC commissioner."
McKenna and ACCCE were joined in their praise for McNamee by FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre, who took to Twitter shortly after the nomination was announced to throw his support behind Trump's pick.
Congratulations to Bernard McNamee for his nomination to @FERC! He is eminently qualified for the job, and I look forward to serving with him. @FERC is one step closer to our full complement. #energyisgood @FERChatterjee @CLaFleurFERC @RichGlickFERC— Chairman Kevin McIntyre (@McIntyreFERC) October 3, 2018