A Trump-appointed energy regulator who led the charge against the president’s plan to prop up financially struggling coal and nuclear plants announced late Thursday that he is leaving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to take over as head of the nation’s top trade association for private water utilities.
Powelson will be leaving FERC in mid-August, only one year after the Senate confirmed him to be a commissioner. He will then become president and CEO of the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC), a trade association that is pushing for privatization of the nation’s water systems.
A Republican commissioner from the Philadelphia area, Powelson was nominated by President Trump in May 2017 and sworn in as commissioner on August 10. His replacement at FERC — who will need to be nominated by Trump and confirmed by the Senate — will serve the rest of his term, which expires on June 30, 2020.
His departure leaves more of an opportunity for the commission to be split 2-2 on certain issues, such as gas pipeline approvals or Trump administration proposals to help coal and nuclear generation. Powelson rallied his fellow Republicans on the commission — Chairman Kevin McIntyre and Commissioner Neil Chatterjee — to join him in opposing Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s proposal to bail out coal.
Powelson could not be reached by ThinkProgress for comment. In an interview with Politico, he said policy disagreements with the Trump administration on efforts to bail out struggling coal and nuclear power plants had nothing to do with his decision leave the agency.
There is no “subplot to this,” Powelson told Politico. “I know people want to be like, ‘Argh, he got forced out! He pissed off the president or Rick Perry.’ I’m free to speak my mind now more than ever,” he said. “No one came at me and said, ‘You need to move on. You know if that would ever happen, I would never do it anyway.”
Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program, said it seemed like Powelson was the odd man out among the Republican commissioners at FERC. “He clearly established himself as being an independent thinker and commissioner and he didn’t appear interested in just toeing the party line,” Slocum told ThinkProgress.
The person who Trump nominates to fill the looming vacant seat at the commission, according to Slocum, might shed more light on why Powelson left after only one year. “If we have someone who is going to be a steadfast supporter of bailing out coal, then it might be more plausible that Powelson got pushed out,” he said. But Slocum emphasized that FERC observers can only speculate at this time on what may have happened behind the scenes prior to Powelson’s resignation announcement.
Many environmental groups, however, are not shedding tears over Powelson’s resignation. In March 2017, when he was a commissioner on the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Powelson accused pipeline opponents of being on a “jihad” against FERC.
“As a FERC Commissioner, Robert Powelson was part of the FERC Rubber Stamp for pipelines,” Maya van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said Thursday in a statement. “Powelson was not only a stalwart supporter of pipelines, but he was an outspoken critic of any members of the public who opposed pipelines, likening them to jihadists.”
The Sierra Club did not single out Powelson for criticism but said his “abrupt resignation doesn’t change the fact that FERC itself needs a massive change.”
“The next commissioner must be a strong advocate for considering climate change in FERC’s decision making process, curtailing the dangerous overbuilding of fracked gas pipelines, and stand firmly against reckless coal and nuclear plant bailouts the Trump administration and grid operators are proposing, Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said in a statement issued late Thursday.
Clean energy advocates were more complimentary in their assessment of Powelson’s tenure.
Powelson’s departure will be “quite a loss for the nation’s power sector and power consumers during heated debates over how to responsibly manage electricity markets through this time of transition,” said Sonia Aggarwal, vice president of Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based energy and environmental research firm.
Market disruptions are inevitable when cheaper resources emerge and undercut the economics of existing resources, Aggarwal said Friday in an email to ThinkProgress.
“[I]t was a comfort to have Commisisoner Powelson’s clear-eyed, fact-based, pro-market approach to decision-making at FERC,” she said. “It will be critical for his replacement to uphold the independence of the agency, and to support true competition in markets.”
American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) President and CEO Gregory Wetstone said his group will miss Powelson, who he described as “a strong voice for a resilient, affordable grid and an ardent protector of the integrity of our electricity markets.”
ACORE, a nonprofit group that advocates for the growth of renewable energy, plans to work with the Senate, the Trump administration, and allies across the energy sector “to ensure that any new FERC commissioner is similarly committed to fair competition in the electricity marketplace,” Wetstone said Friday in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.
Powelson voted against a proposal submitted to FERC by Energy Secretary Rick Perry that would have provided subsidies to the coal and nuclear energy industries. He also publicly denounced Trump’s order directing Perry to take the necessary steps to bail out coal and nuclear plants.
Powelson told S&P Global Platts that his decision to lead a water utility trade group did not come out of the blue. As president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), he said he worked closely with the water industry. The National Association of Water Companies “has a rich tradition working with state and federal officials and I’m stoked to hit the ground the running,” he told the news service.
Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, said she is not surprised that Powelson is leaving FERC to work on behalf of private water companies.
NARUC itself recently lobbied on behalf of private water operators by supporting the federal Voluntary Water Partnership for Distressed Communities Act. The bill would have “essentially coerced” struggling communities to privatize their water systems without ensuring any improvements to those systems, according to Hauter.
“Given his existing close ties to the fossil fuel industry and corporate water sector, we expect Powelson to feel right at home at NAWC [National Association of Water Companies],” Hauter said Friday in a statement.
Food & Water Watch expects NAWC to “exploit” the water challenges facing communities from Flint, Michigan, to Martin County, Kentucky, to lobby for legislative and tax code changes that “facilitate profits for their corporate members — at the expense of the public and community access to affordable water service,” she said.