Jon Wellinghoff has left the building.
On Sunday, the outspoken Wellinghoff stepped down from his role as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), as commissioner Cheryl LaFleur stepped up and took the mantle as acting chairwoman.
But this game of musical chairs leaves us with an intriguing question—who’s going to take the empty fifth spot on FERC?
The story so far
Wellinghoff had been slated to leave for months. President Obama nominated Ron Binz, the forward-thinking former chairman of Colorado Public Utilities Commission, to lead FERC in June. But the nomination hit a brick wall in the Senate Energy Committee after critics seized on Binz's pro-clean energy, anti-fossil fuel "activism." Shortly after coal-country Democrat Joe Manchin publicly announced his opposition, Binz found himself short of the majority required to pass the committee and was forced to withdraw.
After the Binz nomination failed, observers have wondered what is next for FERC, the little-known but powerful agency that regulates the country's transmission grid, energy markets and gas pipelines.
If not Binz, then who?
As Utility Dive’s Rod Kuckro predicted after Binz withdrew his nomination, President Obama did not nominate another FERC commissioner before Wellinghoff left office.
“My bet is that it will all happen at once—Wellinghoff will leave, the president will name a new chair and send word on an intended nominee to fill the open seat,” one long-time observer of FERC, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Utility Dive at the time.
Wellinghoff is already gone, LaFleur is now chair—so who's the next nominee?
On condition of anonymity, I spoke with a reliable source close to FERC who told me he believes the next nominee will be a less publicly controversial figure already inside FERC. That man, the source said, is Norman Bay.
You might be asking yourself—who is Norman Bay?
Bay is the first Chinese-American U.S. Attorney. According to his FERC bio, he went to Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School. After clerking with a judge on the Ninth Circuit appeals court and working in the Legal Adviser’s Office of the U.S. State Department, Bay became a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice in the District of Columbia and New Mexico. In 2000, Bay was named interim U.S. Attorney for New Mexico as President Bill Clinton nominated him for the position shortly thereafter. Bay resigned in 2001 after handling the Wen Ho Lee case.
Bay then spent about seven years as a Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law, teaching Criminal Law, Evidence and Constitutional Law. Bay was named FERC's Director of Enforcement in 2009, where he currently leads the department's oversight of energy markets and other regulated activities.
The Bay pick makes sense because he will not face the same type of opposition Binz faced, the source noted. Asked who would become chair, the source replied that eventually he thinks Bay will take up the chairmanship.
The Bay pick's implications
I spoke to a second source with knowledge of the nomination process, who also agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. The second source said he could neither confirm nor deny reports that Bay was going to be nominated, but said Bay's name had certainly come up in discussions around the position.
If Bay is nominated, he could reasonably be expected to bring his expertise in criminal law and national security to bear. Strictly enforcing market regulations and improving cybersecurity for the nation's power grid and gas pipelines would likely be near the top of Bay's priority list.
However, as with all things playing out on Capitol Hill, nothing is certain.
Since Binz's withdrawal, there have been many names bandied about for the fifth FERC spot: Collette Honorable, chairwoman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission; Lynn Evans, board member at the Tennessee Valley Authority; Rose McKinney-James, former commissioner on the Nevada Public Utilities Commission; Edward Finley, chairman of the North Carolina Utilities Commission; and Regina Speed-Bost, attorney with Schiff Hardin and former FERC staffer.
Our first source did however rule out John Norris, the current FERC commissioner who was the one-time favorite for the nomination before he "pissed himself" by accusing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of blocking his nomination.
As this game of musical chairs nears an end, we'll see who is sitting in the captain's seat when the music stops.
Enjoyed what you read? You may also want to read Utility Dive's look at FERC chairman Wellinghoff's explanation of why utilities must adapt or die.