Senate Democrats on Wednesday pressured newly confirmed Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Bernard McNamee to recuse himself from a wide range of power generation issues at FERC due to his past work at the Department of Energy and comments criticizing renewable energy.
Seventeen senators sent a letter to McNamee saying that his role in crafting a coal and nuclear bailout at DOE and a recently unearthed February speech mean he should recuse himself in "any future matters before FERC that might be characterized as pitting one fuel source against another."
The move follows a request from Harvard law professors this week for McNamee's recusal on FERC's pending grid resilience docket, set up after FERC rejected the DOE bailout plan. McNamee was confirmed to FERC in a 50-49 vote last week and will sit for his first commission meeting on Dec. 20.
The letter from Senate Democrats represents the elevated level of scrutiny surrounding McNamee as he takes his seat at FERC.
Democrats and clean energy supporters were skeptical of McNamee from the beginning due to his role in designing the DOE's proposed rule on grid resilience, which would have provided cost recovery to many ailing coal and nuclear plants.
Then, in November, Utility Dive released a video of McNamee criticizing renewable energy and environmental groups in a February speech for Texas lawmakers.
Renewables "mess up the whole physics of the grid," McNamee said, referring to carbon dioxide as not a "real pollutant" and portraying industry legal conflicts with environmental groups as a "constant battle between liberty and tyranny."
Those factors did not convince any Senate Republicans to vote against McNamee last week, allowing for his close confirmation. But Democrats argue they "display a profound preference for fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and at a minimum suggest a strong bias against renewable energy technologies."
"We believe that the viewpoints evident from the thrust of the [DOE bailout plan] … along with statements you made more recently favoring fossil fuel and denigrating renewable resources, could present an appearance of a lack of impartiality in carrying out your responsibilities as a FERC Commissioner," Democrats wrote. "In light of that, we respectfully request that you commit to recusing yourself in any future matters before FERC that might be characterized as pitting one fuel source against another."
The letter was signed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, N.Y., as well as every Democrat member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, except its new ranking member, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Manchin initially voted for McNamee in the committee, but then reversed his vote on the Senate floor, saying that the nominee's filmed comments on climate change were disqualifying.
Manchin, a steadfast ally of the coal industry, pressed the Trump administration to support ailing plants this year after the rejection of the DOE bailout proposal. During McNamee's confirmation hearing — before the video's release — Manchin praised the nominee's efforts on the DOE bailout plan.
"I'm probably one of the only ones on [the Democrat] side who appreciates where you're coming from," he told McNamee. "I appreciate your position."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misnamed the Senate committee involved. It's the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.