An Ohio congressman who receives a large portion of his campaign contributions from coal industry interests informed members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on Tuesday that one of his most important constituents — Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray — is not happy with their decision to reject a Trump administration proposal to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants.
Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH), who represents the small Ohio town where Murray Energy is headquartered, told the regulators at a House committee hearing: “I take notice when major employers in my district speak out on this issue. For instance, the CEO of Murray Energy recently stated that FERC did not do its job when it rejected this proposal.”
Murray has been highly critical of the commission’s decision in January to vote down Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s proposed taxpayer bailout of coal and nuclear power. He has accused the agency’s two Democratic commissioners, Richard Glick and Cheryl LaFleur, of political bias, saying they will never support coal or nuclear power.
Two of the three Republicans who voted against Perry’s proposal, Chairman Kevin McIntyre and Commissioner Robert Powelson, “are wrong in their decision and it needs to be overturned,” the coal executive told CNBC in January.
All five FERC commissioners were present at the House Energy and Commerce Energy Subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, where they discussed the agency’s fiscal 2019 budget and the agency’s top priorities.
Johnson, who has received $13,040 from Murray Energy PACs and individuals during the current election cycle, kicked off his questioning by telling the commissioners he’s been closely following the discussion surrounding the Department of Energy’s proposed rule.
“These issues hit especially close to home,” Johnson said, referring to the heavy amount of coal mining and natural gas production that occurs in his congressional district.
Johnson has represented the 6th district of Ohio since 2011. Over that time, he has gained a reputation as one of the most right-wing members of Congress. In 2016, Johnson called the Environmental Protection Agency “un-American” and accused it of “draining the lifeblood out of our businesses.”
Johnson’s district runs along the southeast of Ohio, bordering Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. He has said that because he “is a scientist” (he has a degree in computer science), he does not accept the science of human-caused climate change. “I am not an alarmist that believes that greenhouse gas emissions coming from the coal industry are causing major problems,” he said in 2011.
In late September, Perry sent the proposal to FERC — called a grid reliability and resilience pricing plan — that would subsidize struggling coal and nuclear plants in the name of keeping power grids dependable. Many viewed the proposal as an unprecedented and unnecessary intrusion by an administration into the operations of an independent federal agency.
FERC, by a vote of 5-0 in January, didn’t buy Perry’s reasoning. The unanimous vote is especially notable since 3 of the 5 commissioners are Trump appointees.
Murray told Bloomberg News at the time that four of the five members “defaulted” on their duties by refusing to support the plan and should be fired. Meanwhile, according to Murray, FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, who also voted to reject the plan, should not be fired because he was “overwhelmed” by the other four.
Chatterjee sounded apologetic when he explained to Johnson during Tuesday’s hearing why he voted against Perry’s proposal. “While I have deep sympathy for the sentiments that Mr. Murray, the folks in your community are expressing and the concerns they have about the economic impact, the job impact, the cultural impact of these [plant] shutdowns, from the seat I sit in now, our record simply didn’t support taking action at that time,” he said.
Johnson specifically targeted Commissioner Robert Powelson for comments he made on Twitter about the coal CEO’s criticism of FERC.
Here's the now-deleted Tweet… pic.twitter.com/ZLeFgKsEwa
— Sam Mintz (@samjmintz) April 10, 2018
Last week, in a tweet, Powelson noted that Murray blamed the “feckless” FERC for not approving the plan to boost coal and nuclear plants. “I challenge Mr. Murray to a debate on CNBC or Fox News,” he wrote in the tweet.
Johnson, in reference to the tweet, said: “Commissioner Powelson, I believe you recently made some comments indicating that you disagree with Mr. Murray. Can you expound on that?”
“I take offense to the word feckless being used to [describe] colleagues who I serve with here,” Powelson responded. However, the commissioner added he realized his tweet, which he later deleted, was “inappropriate” and “I dialed it back rather quickly.”