Staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has not communicated with the White House over a proposal to bail out coal and nuclear generators, the chairman of FERC said in a letter to Congressional Democrats released Thursday.
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," Chairman Kevin McIntyre wrote. The staff, however, routinely communicates with the Department of Energy on "a host of matters of shared responsibility including intelligence, personnel and legal process."
The assurance came in response to an August letter raising concern about the about comments made by FERC Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese, who told a nuclear energy conference the agency was communicating with the White House on a support plan for the plants. McIntyre wrote that he authorized Pugliese to speak at the conference, but one former FERC staffer implied that the chief of staff to step down over the comments.
McIntyre's letter seeks to assuage growing concerns in Washington that FERC — an independent federal agency — may be falling under the political influence of the Trump administration.
Last month, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., sent a letter to McIntyre saying that Pugliese's comments "call into question the impartiality and independence of the Commission."
The letter referenced comments by Pugliese 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.
Commissioner Richard Glick told Utility Dive last month that FERC regulators outside McIntyre's office had no knowledge of the comments or communications with the White House.
Soon after the comments were first reported by E&E News, FERC released a statement saying that Pugliese was "simply stating that the federal government is working to ensure that important critical infrastructure, like hospitals, remains operational."
McIntyre's response, released by the Democrats Thursday afternoon, reiterates that message. The chief of staff, like any any other FERC employee, is not authorized to speak on issues pending before the commission, he wrote.
"Consequently, neither Mr. Pugliese nor any other FERC staff member has or could be authorized by me or other Commissioners to state the Commission's views on matters pending before it," McIntyre wrote.
McIntyre wrote that he authorized Pugliese to speak at the conference and appear on an episode of Breitbart News Sunday, a weekly podcast run by the far-right media outlet. Pugliese also notified FERC's Office of External Affairs, but "the specific subjects of his remarks were not subject to review and were not identified in advance."
"Mr. Pugliese informed me that he planned to discuss his work at the Commission as well as topical matters of general interest, such as cybersecurity concerns, grid resilience, and the nation's changing generation mix," McIntyre wrote. "Speeches and remarks by members of the Commission's senior staff are routine and commonplace, and I had no basis for concern with Mr. Pugliese's participation in the interview or speech."
The chairman's letter also reaffirmed his support for Pugliese, who has attracted criticism from former FERC regulators and staffers for his comments. Named chief of staff by former acting Chairman Neil Chatterjee last year, Pugliese previously worked at the Department of Transportation but had little other power sector experience.
"Commissioner Chatterjee selected Mr. Pugliese as his Chief of Staff because of his outstanding management skills and his unparalleled talent for coordinating the activities of a complex, multi-faceted agency," McIntyre wrote. "I chose to retain him as my Chief of Staff for the same reasons."
Former FERC regulators and staffers who have expressed concern about FERC's independence welcomed McIntyre's letter, but remained critical of Pugliese's comments.
"I hope this means everyone respects the independence of the FERC from political interference," former Commissioner Nora Mead Brownell, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush, wrote in an email. "Political and partisan comments by any employee diminish the appearance of independence and the credibility that bestows."
The chairman's letter, "seems to dismiss Mr. Pugliese's assertion that FERC staff is actively working with [the Trump administration] to identify power plants that are critical to the grid," wrote Alison Silverstein, a former advisor to Republican FERC Chairman Pat Wood III, in an email. "That's a good thing."
Silverstein, who helped write the Department of Energy's grid reliability study last year, implied Pugliese should consider stepping down over the incident.
"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.