FERC Nominees Questioned at Senate Hearing, With Support From Republicans

In a May 25 hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, President Donald Trump’s nominees for FERC and the Department of Energy (DOE) faced questions but limited resistance from lawmakers, and the chairman of the committee expressed hope that they could quickly be confirmed.

Some of the harsh remarks from Democrat lawmakers was focused on the Trump administration’s proposed budget to slash DOE programs, energy policies that focus on fossil fuels, and reduced research and development (R&D) activities, including at DOE’s national laboratories. A DOE staff study of baseload power resources and FERC’s inquiry on whether state policy initiatives are affecting wholesale power markets was broached by several senators.

The hearing was to consider the White House nominations of Dan Brouillette to be deputy secretary at DOE, the No. 2 position below Secretary Rick Perry, along with Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson to be commissioners at FERC. Chatterjee and Powelson would fill vacancies at the commission, which has been operating without a quorum for the first time in its history since early February.

Chatterjee, currently the energy policy advisor for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Powelson, a commissioner with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, had their nominations sent to the committee at the same time, while the vetting and paperwork of another expected nominee, Kevin McIntyre, an attorney and co-leader of the energy practice at Jones Day, is on a separate track, sources have said. McIntyre is expected to be tapped as chairman for his nomination, but when that nomination makes its way to the Senate and lawmakers hold a hearing to consider his nomination remains to be seen.

Following and during the hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the committee, said it is important to restore a quorum at FERC, and the expressed confidence in all three nominees that spoke during the hearing. Brouillette, Chatterjee, and Powelson “are all well-qualified, and deserve to move quickly through the process to confirmation,” Murkowski said in a statement.

At the hearing, Murkowski advised senators to submit any questions for the record to the nominees by the end of the day May 25 and to be prepared to hold a vote on them following the Memorial Day recess. The committee will consider the nominations of Brouillette – who previously served in a role at DOE before moving to the private sector – Chatterjee and Powelson, along with David Bernhardt to be deputy secretary at the Department of Interior, Murkowski said.

If confirmed, Chatterjee and Powelson would join Cheryl LaFleur, a Democrat, currently serving as acting chairman at FERC, and Commissioner Colette Honorable, a Democrat, who has given notice that she will not seek another term at the Commission. Honorable’s current term expires on June 30, though she could stay on after that date until a replacement is named or the end of the current Congressional session.

The political wrangling associated with having two Republican nominees for FERC, with McIntyre also a Republican, was touched on by two sources who speculated that Senate Democrats could hold up any action on McIntyre until a Democrat nominee is forwarded from the White House. The sources did not expect any holdup in restoring a quorum at FERC, but once Chatterjee and Powelson are in place, Democrats could try and stall any movement on McIntyre until a replacement for Honorable is named.

By law, not more than three members of FERC can be from the same political party. For both Republican and Democrat presidents in the past, when they nominated FERC members who are not members of the president’s political party, they have nominated individuals recommended by the Senate leader of the opposing party.

This tradition was mentioned by 16 Democrat senators in a March 8 letter to the White House, asking Trump to consult with Republicans and Democrats to select nominees from both parties to serve at FERC, adding that they expected him to “honor this long-standing practice.”

The issue was mentioned briefly at the opening of the hearing by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who filled in for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member on the committee, due to Cantwell’s absence from the hearing.

“It is important that we restore the quorum at the commission. But it is equally important that the president nominate two more members to fill the remaining vacancies, one democratic and one republican and maintain the party balance that the law requires,” Franken said. Democrats on the energy committee will be working with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) “to make sure that happens,” he said.

Several senators, both Republican and Democrat, raised concerns about the Trump administration budget proposal and the request to cut R&D, funding at DOE national labs, and FERC and DOE’s critical role in protecting the power grid from cybersecurity threats.

Franken mentioned that the energy sector is going through a transformation and DOE’s labs will be important for protecting energy infrastructure and ensuring national security. The next deputy secretary at DOE will have a difficult job “because the president who nominated him doesn’t seem to understand any of this,” Franken said.

During questioning from senators, both Chatterjee and Powelson vowed to weigh all sides of issues and gather feedback before reaching decisions if they are confirmed by the Senate. They mentioned how FERC recently held a technical conference to receive input on how state renewable portfolio standards, support for nuclear resources, and other generation choices are affecting wholesale power markets in regions with organized markets.

As a state regulator, “I am respectful of states’ rights,” Powelson said. If he is confirmed to be at FERC, he knows that the commission has a responsibility to uphold the Federal Power Act and the Natural Gas Act, and any state interference with those laws may require action by the Commission, Powelson said.

The hearing was briefly disrupted a few times when demonstrators yelled that FERC is harming people by approving pipeline infrastructure, with five individuals forcibly removed by security. One of the members of Beyond Extreme Energy was on the floor and chained to a chair, which prompted security to carry him and the chair out of the hearing room.

By Tom Tiernan TTiernan@fosterreport.com

 

This article appears as published in The Foster Report No. 3150, issued May 26, 2017

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