Department of Energy Assistant Secretary Bruce Walker and former Arizona utility regulator Doug Little are at the center of early conversations in Washington over who will fill an upcoming vacancy on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), according to more than a half-dozen industry sources close to the discussions who spoke with Utility Dive.
Discussions over the replacement for Commissioner Robert Powelson, who will step down next month, are still evolving and could change over time, according to the sources, two of which said they had direct knowledge of conversations inside the administration.
The Trump administration appears likely to appoint a figure more loyal to its energy priorities than Powelson, who repeatedly criticized its plans to keep retiring coal and nuclear plants online, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the discussions. The White House and Department of Energy declined to comment.
Powelson has not yet left his seat on FERC, but already the rumor mill in Washington is working overtime on figuring out his replacement.
At least a dozen names are floating around energy industry circles in the capital, but Walker and Little are the two that every industry source Utility Dive spoke with mentioned as potential White House picks for the post.
Walker, confirmed as DOE assistant secretary last October, has led the agency’s efforts to help restore power in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and set up a new cybersecurity office, which he heads on a temporary basis.
Those credentials could help him win support on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which vets FERC nominees before they are considered by the full Senate. The committee advanced Walker’s nomination in October by voice vote.
But Walker has since also worked on the agency’s national security efforts, arguing that keeping uneconomic coal and nuclear plants online may be necessary to guard against threats to the natural gas pipeline system. President Trump directed DOE in March to devise a plan to save the aging generators on the grounds of national security.
Those efforts would be questioned by Democrats if Walker was selected as the FERC nominee, but they could be powerless to stop his nomination if Republicans, who have a majority in the Senate, rally around his confirmation.
The office of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the committee, declined to comment on the FERC vacancy. Last week, Murkowski urged the White House to name a replacement for Powelson swiftly, as a vacancy on the commission could allow Democrats to deadlock agency decisions with 2-2 votes.
Compared to Walker, former Arizona Corporation Commissioner (ACC) Doug Little is an unknown quantity to many in Washington. Elected as an Arizona regulator in 2014, Little was named chair of the ACC in 2016, where he served until last September, when the White House appointed him as a deputy assistant secretary at DOE in charge of maintaining fossil baseload generation.
If nominated, Little could face criticism over his time at the ACC, where utility Arizona Public Service spent millions in regulatory elections to support him and other Republican commissioners. The campaign spending controversy followed him throughout his regulatory tenure, animating contentious proceedings over rooftop solar valuation in the state.
“I almost almost hesitate to say it, but it was almost like [solar advocates painted me] as the nasty Republican who likes dirty air and will push their grandmother out of her home because they'll make the rates go up,” he told Utility Dive in a 2016 interview. “That's completely not me.”
Little’s status as a former state regulator could also help him among some policymakers in Washington.
This week, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which represents state regulators, sent a letter to the White House asking it to nominate someone with state commission experience to replace Powelson, the only sitting FERC regulator with such experience. FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre endorsed that call in comments to the press on Thursday.
"I think there's an obvious advantage to having that background particularly since I expect the issues concerning the overlap of state and federal jurisdiction will only grow in the foreseeable future," McIntyre said. "[Powelson’s] perspective on that has been helpful to all of us."