Cheryl LaFleur has witnessed her share of changes during the near-decade she served on the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC). The most drastic changes have come from what she sees as the administration's attempts to interfere and the cultural shift taking place within the independent regulatory body.
She has been chairman, acting chairman and commissioner. A Democrat appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010, LaFleur has been part of the regulatory body during Twitter wars and periods without a quorum.
Her tenure has spanned landmark reforms, from cost allocation for transmission planning to market access for demand response and energy storage. She is credited with keeping FERC on course while serving as sole commissioner during a period of no quorum in 2017.
In an interview Thursday with Utility Dive, LaFleur reflected on the changes at FERC and noted the difference between the presence of the Obama and Trump administrations.
Under the Trump administration, the Department of Energy's notice of proposed rulemaking (NOPR) on pricing baseload energy resources "was part of the administration's policy and ... a different level of engagement and pressure than I'd ever seen," she said, a pressure that did not exist under the Obama administration.
The NOPR is viewed by renewables and natural gas advocates, among other FERC stakeholders, as a bailout for uncompetitive nuclear and coal plants. The proposal became the cornerstone of DOE's efforts to pressure FERC to help uneconomic power plants.
Independence: Then and now
Over her tenure, FERC chairs have worked to uphold the regulatory group's independence. However, LaFleur said she saw a political shift in recent years, particularly regarding staff.
"[T]here's been a considerable increase in the number of employees at the commission who are political hires, as opposed to civil service. And I think that's maybe a little less visible than the notice of proposed rulemaking, but it's another slight cultural change," she said.
FERC Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese stepped down in April amid controversy over his comments in 2018, when he implied FERC was working with DOE on a support package for coal and nuclear plants. Pugliese was a former senior White House adviser appointed by Commissioner Neil Chatterjee in 2017, during his first period as FERC Chairman.
DOE NOPR "was not just a piece of paper, but had all kinds of speaking and ballyhooing around how critical it was and how important, how we better get on it."
When FERC regained quorum in 2017, the administration pressured the commission to vote on the NOPR, despite having a newly appointed chairman. DOE Secretary Rick Perry and others "made speeches about 'FERC really better get on it,'" LaFleur said.
The DOE NOPR "was not just a piece of paper, but had all kinds of speaking and ballyhooing around how critical it was and how important, how we better get on it," she said.
She remains "very proud" of rejecting the NOPR, and credits the late Chairman Kevin McIntyre's leadership in the effort.
"It set a new pattern of involvement from the administration, in my opinion," she said.
The Obama administration's DOE wrote the commission to pursue rate recovery for pipelines that fixed their leaks to limit methane emissions, which she recalls became a footnote in the final FERC policy statement.
"It wasn't particularly heavy-handed," she said of the letter, adding that FERC owned the policy statement.
"Secretary [Ernest] Moniz wasn't making speeches about if we didn't do that, you know, the world would come to an end or whatever," she said.
The DOE did not respond to a request for comment regarding LaFleur's statements.
She recalls receiving a single policy call from the White House while being chairman. A staffer from the Obama administration asked if FERC was "going to petition for rehearing of the reversal of Order 745," the commission's demand response rule.
"When this young man from the White House called, I wasn't nice at all. I said, 'You're not supposed to call about things like that. That's a voting thing,'" she recalled.
"I was quite up on my high horse, but we're an independent agency. We decide that," she said, referring to rehearings and other FERC action.
The Obama administration went on to issue its appeal of a federal court decision in May, 2014, to invalidate FERC's Order 745, which would allow demand response to participate in energy markets.
The work that lies ahead for the commission is related to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. LaFleur regrets leaving the commission before helping to define the proper accounting for emissions in a pipeline project. "We would be farther ahead now," she said, if the commission had begun to act on the issue before it lost quorum in 2017.
While the matter had captured the attention of federal regulators during the Obama administration, it wasn't until 2018 that the commission opened a docket to review policies for approving liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipelines.
"The growing presence of the [pipeline greenhouse gas emissions] issues in our dockets was here" by 2016, she said.
"I wish we'd made more progress while we were focused on [greenhouse gas emissions], maybe started a docket earlier."
In 2016, FERC faced a lawsuit from the Sierra Club and other environmentalists over its approval of the Sabal Trail Pipeline. In addition, the White House Council on Environmental Quality had issued a guidance on how to take greenhouse gases into account.
"We were having a lot of discussion about what should we do? Should we have a tech conference? How should we engage on this? How should we deal with this? ... I wish we'd made more progress while we were focused on it, maybe started a docket earlier," she said.
With FERC split 2-2, the commission passed a variety of LNG orders in which LaFleur sided with Republicans. Commissioner Richard Glick became the sole dissenting regulator on a number of decisions. LaFleur recalled the pointed Twitter comments and the activism the commission faced regarding the build-out of natural gas during this time.
LaFleur has received requests to vote down LNG-related orders and she said she dissented on a number of LNG orders. Those never made it to an official vote because they did not have her support, she said.
Although her exit will remove the deadlock that has kept some orders in decision-making purgatory, she expects a normal amount of activity will continue at the Commission.
"I don't think on September 2 hundreds of cases will go streaming out of FERC," she said.
Figuring out next steps
LaFleur told Commissioner Bernard McNamee joining or leaving the commission, is like "jumping into a moving river."
"So things have started before you got here that you contribute to. And suddenly when you leave, there's a lot of things that are in some stage and you're not going to see it to completion, whatever that means in FERC world," she told Utility Dive.
The most critical FERC work that she will follow for the next year, includes cases on adapting wholesale markets to state initiatives, LNG matters, the progress for competitive transmission under Order 1000 and how the commission reacts to court clarifications — "of which I'm sure there'll be more."
LaFleur has not announced her next move after deciding to leave the Commission in August. She could have remained in her position through the end of the year, but preferred to "leave on my own terms," in case the Trump administration nominated a replacement.
"I've been a great supporter of the regional market developments in the West and been engaged with them for a while."
She started the year anticipating a renomination, before being told by minority leadership staff that she would not receive a bid. She said she has not received a reason for that decision, but did note disagreements between Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and her work as FERC chairman in 2014.
The commissioner will return to Boston with her husband, although she won't necessarily work in that region. She wants to "make a difference in different places," despite contacts and experience in the Northeast.
"I've been a great supporter of the regional market developments in the West and been engaged with them for a while," she offered as an example.
"Professionally, I hope to build a portfolio of opportunities that give me a chance to continue to make a difference in the transition of the energy grid," she said. During FERC's July open meeting, she said she prefers working with several organizations as opposed to a single one.
As many former commissioners have done, she plans to follow the work of her successors closely.
"I'll just be generally looking to ensure that the Commission sustains its independence, that's critical to me," she said.