President Joe Biden on Friday named Willie Phillips as chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after he served as acting chair for more than a year.
FERC will have an important role in spurring access to reliable, affordable carbon-free energy as the Biden administration works to tackle the climate crisis, advance environmental justice and create a clean electricity grid by 2035, the White House said in a statement.
Also, in news first reported by Politico, FERC Commissioner Allison Clements said she would not seek a second term at the agency. Her term ends June 30, but she could remain at FERC until the end of this Congressional session, which is expected to end on Jan. 3.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, endorsed the White House’s decision to name Phillips as FERC chair.
“Throughout the last year overseeing a very productive and bipartisan FERC, Chairman Willie Phillips has proven time and time again that he was the right person to lead this ever-important agency from the start,” Manchin said in a statement.
From a legal standpoint, there's no distinction between “acting chair” and chair, according to Larry Gasteiger, executive director of WIRES, a trade group focused on transmission issues.
However, dropping the “acting” label removes any uncertainty it may engender about Phillips’ role at FERC, said Gasteiger, who held senior leadership roles at the commission for about two decades, including as chief of staff for former FERC Chair Norman Bay.
Clements’ announcement that she will not serve another term at FERC opens up the possibility that the commission will lose its quorum, leaving the agency’s two remaining commissioners — Phillips and Mark Christie — unable to vote on pending matters, Gasteiger said.
“It'll put a little bit more pressure perhaps on the White House and Congress to look at the two vacancies that are already out there, if not her seat as well, and try to figure out if they can come to some agreement on a nominee or group of nominees before there would be a loss of a quorum,” he said.
The process may be complicated by the fact that it is an election year. “There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Gasteiger said.
It is unlikely Clements’ decision will affect the timing of FERC’s pending rule to revise its requirements for transmission planning and cost allocation, which is expected to be issued in the next couple months, according to Gasteiger.
Other key issues on FERC’s agenda include an inquiry into dynamic line ratings, the possibility of requiring increased transmission transfer capability between regions, the agency’s return on equity policy for transmission and pending rehearing requests on FERC’s new grid interconnection rule, plus upcoming compliance plans for the rule, Gasteiger said.
Generally, adding or subtracting a FERC commissioner to the agency could affect the timing of those and other issues, he said. “It would take new commissioners time to come up to speed on those items before they act,” Gasteiger said. “It's almost certain there would be some level of delay if you were to add new commissioners into the mix.”
Former FERC Chair Neil Chatterjee said he suspects the White House is in no hurry to fill the agency’s empty commissioner seats because it would delay action on the transmission rule. “ANY new commissioners put on now would immediately slow down the process,” he said in an email.
Clements was a “wonderful colleague” and is a “thoughtful public servant” and will continue to do important work after she leaves FERC, said Chatterjee, who is now a senior advisor with Hogan Lovells.
Clements has been an advocate for FERC to more sharply assess how the greenhouse gas emissions related to the gas infrastructure projects it reviews affect the climate. She is also a supporter of “grid enhancing technologies,” transmission planning reforms and ensuring wholesale power markets provide grid operators with the power supplies they need.