The chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said Wednesday that she and energy companies are "frustrated" with the growing "backlog" of policies and projects waiting for action at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told reporters that some issues are "perhaps deadlocked right now" due to a vacancy at the five-member commission, but said the White House and Senate leadership have not communicated with her about potential FERC nominees.
FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee later on Wednesday told reporters that he understands the desire for action, but is "comfortable with the trajectory of the dialogue" with his fellow regulators. "It's more important we get it right than get it rushed," he told reporters.
Murkowski's comments at a meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners illustrate growing bipartisan frustration over a lack of FERC action on multiple high-profile policies and projects.
"We have billions, literally billions of dollars of energy infrastructure projects, including pipelines and LNG export facilities," Murkowski told the audience of state utility regulators. "They're in the queue, they're waiting, and FERC needs to have that full team to address that growing backlog."
In one recent case, Chatterjee in December delayed a scheduled vote on a major liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility after an impasse with Democrats. After her appearance, the Alaska senator told reporters she blames that delay and others on the "2-2 split" between Republicans and Democrats at the commission.
"There are some things that are perhaps deadlocked right now because you're at a 2-2 split and so that makes things tough," Murkowski said. "You talk to people who have some projects that are pending and they're frustrated."
Later that day, Chatterjee told reporters at a separate event that he and his fellow regulators are having "productive conversations" on the LNG issue and others.
"I feel comfortable with the trajectory of the dialogue I'm having with my colleagues," he said. "We have some discreet disagreements, but we can work through those disagreements, so when it comes to those LNG projects we can get to it."
In addition to action on energy infrastructure, Murkowski pushed FERC to reform its interpretation of the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA), a 1978 law supporting renewable energy development. Former Commissioner Kevin McIntyre restarted a review of that law last year, but it has not moved forward, leading electric utilities to prod the commission for action last month.
"My hope is that the FERC will reach a bipartisan deal to bring PURPA into the 21st century," Murkowski said during her speech, "agreeing we should not be in the business of forcing utility customers to pay unnecessary costs for power they don't need."
Chatterjee addressed PURPA in his comments as well, saying stakeholders "keep talking about the need" to reform it.
"There's a reason [PURPA] hasn't been updated since 1978. This is our one opportunity, our shot, our one bite at the apple," he said. "We want to get it right and I would rather have it be right and durable. I don't want to just ram something out. I want it to be durable, and that takes time to do."
Murkowski's comments come the same week that Congressional Democrats pressed FERC to issue a final order on how aggregations of distributed energy resources can participate in wholesale markets. FERC held a technical conference on the issue nearly a year ago, but has yet to issue a final order.
"I spoke in my remarks today at length about the importance of getting the aggregated DER rules out," Chatterjee after his appearance at the Energy Storage Association policy summit Wednesday. "These are really really complex proceedings and I understand people want to see action on them but … it's more important we get it right than get it rushed."
Murkowski, whose committee oversees FERC and its nominees, said she shares frustration over the deadlock at FERC, but understood the difficulties with the vacancy caused by McIntyre's death in early January.
"Other than a very, very brief period of time they haven't had a full complement on the FERC," she said, "and yes I get frustrated but I know that they're human beings over there and they need to have the help not only with commissioners but with their staff."
During her speech, Murkowski said one of her priorities this year will be to "restore a full complement of commissioners at the FERC." But later, she told reporters the White House has yet to communicate about potential nominees.
"We are waiting," she said. "Every day we're told it's getting closer but we still have not seen that presented and my hope is as soon as that happens we'll be able to move quickly in the committee to hold hearing on whoever is named."
Senate Democratic leadership has also not communicated about the potential nomination of Allison Clements, a former FERC lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Last week, E&E reported she is Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's pick to succeed Democrat Commissioner Cheryl Lafleur, who will step down this year.
"[Schumer] hasn't put anybody forward yet. So far as I know there has been nothing that has been made public," Murkowski said. "Maybe because you [reporters] talk about it you think it's public but we have not seen any public announcement that she is his pick."
When the White House and Senate leadership settle on nominees, Murkowski said her committee will be prepared to move quickly, perhaps pairing Democrat and Republican nominees together as a package.
"If names are ready at the same time we've got a process to move folks," she said, "but if there's no name ready then we cant do anything, but my desire is to get moving with the confirmation process."