- President Trump on Wednesday designated Commissioner Neil Chatterjee to be the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
- Outgoing Chairman Kevin McIntyre will step down from his post but remain on FERC as a commissioner, according to a letter released by the agency. McIntyre battled brain cancer last year and wrote that he "very recently experienced a more serious health setback" that left him "unable to perform the duties of chairman."
- Chatterjee was acting chairman of FERC last year before McIntyre was confirmed by the Senate, but the White House announcement said he will be chairman, not acting chair. The White House and FERC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The White House announcement on Wednesday ends weeks of speculation over the status of McIntyre, who has not made a public appearance since July and missed FERC’s monthly meetings in September and October.
In a letter dated Oct. 22, the outgoing chairman wrote to President Trump, proposing that he "step aside from the position of chairman and its additional duties so that I can commit myself fully to my work as commissioner."
McIntyre’s decision to stay on FERC will allow Republicans to preserve partisan parity on the five-person commission until GOP nominee Bernard McNamee is confirmed by the Senate. If he left FERC entirely, the commission would be left with two Democrats and a Republican chair.
The reshuffling will allow Chatterjee, a former staffer for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a second chance to leave his mark on FERC.
During his first stint with the gavel, Chatterjee oversaw FERC’s initial response to the Department of Energy’s proposed coal and nuclear bailout, filed in late Sept. 2017.
During debate over the plan, Chatterjee ruffled feathers at the commission for floating a short-term coal and nuclear subsidy proposal to the press before notifying fellow regulators and their staffs.
Though he eventually voted against the DOE’s proposal, Chatterjee’s presentation of that plan and subsequent comments defending it were unusual for a FERC regulator, who typically do not comment extensively on pending issues before the commission.
Chatterjee also received some criticism for social media posts mocking pipeline activists that disrupted a FERC meeting, particularly actor James Cromwell.
"Come at me bro!" Chatterjee wrote on Facebook in response to a post from Cromwell.
Chatterjee also said in July that he believes humans are causing climate change, though he has refrained from factoring greenhouse gas emissions into FERC decisions to the degree of his Democratic colleagues.
Chatterjee will take the reins at FERC amid concerns in the power sector that the commission — typically a nonpartisan policymaking body — is falling under the political influence of the Trump administration.
The concern centers on a figure he brought to the commission — Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese.
The controversy began in July when Pugliese appeared on a podcast run by the right-wing media outlet Breitbart, denouncing New York Democrats for opposition to pipeline infrastructure in a manner unusual for FERC staffers.
Then, at a nuclear energy conference in August, Pugliese told the audience that FERC was working to identify power plants critical for national security — the first step in a leaked White House memo from the spring detailing bailout plans for coal and nuclear plants.
The power sector widely took the comments as an indication that FERC was working with the White House on the plan. Leading Congressional Democrats wrote a letter to FERC saying the comments “call into question the impartiality and independence of the Commission."
McIntyre defended Pugliese in the press, but the controversy deepened the next month when E&E News published emails from the chief of staff lauding far-right European politicians. A former Republican FERC staffer called for the chief of staff to step down.
Chatterjee appointed Pugliese to FERC during his time as acting chair but has repeatedly refused to answer questions about the controversy since it emerged this summer.
Besides political concerns, the new chairman will have a full slate of issues to address.
FERC is in the middle of a high-profile investigation into grid resilience it ordered when it rejected the DOE bailout plan in January. It also has pending dockets to reform the capacity markets in PJM and ISO-NE, as well as ongoing reviews of its natural gas pipeline policy and its implementation of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, a key renewable energy law.