Two prominent Congressional Democrats asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Wednesday for an explanation for statements made recently by its chief of staff, Anthony Pugliese, saying they "call into question the impartiality and independence of the Commission."
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wa., and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said in a letter to FERC Chair Kevin McIntyre that Pugliese's recent statement that FERC is helping the Trump administration with a bailout for coal and nuclear plants raises questions about his "independence from political pressure." The Democrats are the ranking members on energy committees in the Senate and House, respectively.
The letter comes a week after FERC Commissioner Richard Glick told Utility Dive he and other regulators were not aware of any effort to assist the White House. Pugliese said FERC is helping identify coal and nuclear plants essential to the grid, the first step in a bailout plan leaked from the administration this spring
The letter from Cantwell and Pallone is the most recent indication of rising fears in Washington that FERC may be falling under the political influence of the White House.
The two Democrats wrote they are "deeply troubled" by statements made by Pugliese saying that FERC is involved in the White House's push to save coal and nuclear plants from retirement.
The statements, made at a nuclear energy conference this month in Washington, were first reported by E&E News. FERC in response said that it is only providing technical assistance to the other agencies, but Glick said he and other regulators were kept "in the dark" about those efforts as well, stoking fears of political influence.
"We believe this action would violate the requirement that FERC remain a neutral and unbiased decisionmaker," Cantwell and Pallone wrote. "We are equally concerned by highly partisan political remarks reportedly made by Mr. Pugliese in the media and at a recent industry conference that are highly inappropriate and undermine the Commission's independence."
Pugliese was named chief of staff last year by then-Chairman Neil Chatterjee and kept on by McIntyre. In addition to his conference remarks, Pugliese also appeared on a podcast for Breitbart News, a far-right media outlet, which the Democrats targeted in their letter.
"We are deeply concerned that your chief of staff, for whom you bear special responsibility, has been making public statements that call into question his impartiality and independence from political pressure," the Democrats wrote. "Left unchecked, we believe such statements must ultimately call into question the impartiality and independence of the Commission itself."
Congress intended FERC to be a non-partisan, impartial regulator, the Democrats wrote to McIntyre.
"[W]e believe that you have the responsibility, as Chairman, to safeguard the Commission's independence, its neutrality, and its impartiality, and to uphold the professional conduct of the Commission's employees, and most especially those on your own personal staff."
Cantwell is the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Pallone is the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The Democrats asked McIntyre a number of questions about Pugliese's role at the commission, including whether the chairman authorized him to speak about pending regulatory matters, how Pugliese was selected for the chief of staff job, and whether he or other staffers have worked with other agencies on the coal and nuclear bailout.