The chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission defended his embattled chief of staff in an appearance on the agency's in-house podcast Tuesday, saying he is "highly qualified" for the role due to his "demonstrated leadership ability."
Last month, Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese made comments at a nuclear energy conference that were widely interpreted as a statement that FERC is working with the White House on a bailout for coal and nuclear generators. Former FERC staffers have implied he should resign over the appearance.
FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre did not address the content of Pugliese's comments directly, but said FERC has increased "collaboration with the Department of Energy and the national security community on matters pertaining to cybersecurity." McIntyre previously said FERC is not working with the White House on a bailout proposal.
McIntyre's Tuesday comments are the second time in a week he has publicly backed his chief of staff amid concerns that FERC may be falling under the political influence of the Trump White House.
The controversy stems from Pugliese's August appearance at a meeting of the American Nuclear Society, where he 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.
McIntyre sent a letter Sept. 5 to leading Congressional Democrats, who had said the comments "call into question the impartiality and independence of the Commission."
FERC staff "has not discussed the merits of any 'grid resilience' proposal that would seek to prefer one form of generation over another with executive branch officials," McIntyre wrote.
Soon after the comments were first reported by E&E News, FERC released a statement saying Pugliese was "simply stating that the federal government is working to ensure that important critical infrastructure, like hospitals, remains operational."
McIntyre reiterated that point in his letter and podcast appearance.
"Under the Chief of Staff's leadership, we have markedly increased our regular communications and coordination with the Department of Energy and the national security community on matters pertaining to cybersecurity," McIntyre said. "And under the Chief of Staff's leadership, the FERC today coordinates closely with state and other governmental entities, in addition to regulated companies, in ensuring that they, too, are able to maintain awareness of cyber threats and take appropriate protective measures."
The letter and podcast appearance stress McIntyre's support for Pugliese, who has faced increased public scrutiny since his comments. After the publication of McIntyre's letter, Alison Silverstein, a former advisor to FERC Chairman Pat Wood III, implied Pugliese should step down due to the controversy.
"If Chairman Wood had ever been forced by my actions to have to defend either the Commission's impartiality, or to give such a half-hearted defense of my character and actions, I would have rushed to offer my resignation before he could fire me," Silverstein wrote in an email.
Pugliese was named to the chief of staff role by then-acting Chairman Neil Chatterjee last year after serving at the Department of Transportation. Critics point out that he had little power sector experience before FERC, but McIntyre said his collaborative skills have been an asset.
"A particular strength of his is his ability to work well in coordination and collaboration with other federal entities," McIntyre said. "He is highly qualified to serve as chief of staff because of his demonstrated leadership ability."
McIntyre's 12-minute podcast appearance also touched on FERC's announcement of regulatory schedules for 12 liquefied natural gas export facilities, as well as a recent gym accident that caused him to break some vertebrae in his back.
"I am now well on the mend and am feeling better every day," McIntyre said. "I also am happy to report that I have continued to work full steam ahead with my colleagues, my personal staff, and the Commission's professional staff, to ensure that the Commission's work continues unabated."