The Senate voted Thursday evening to confirm two Republican nominees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, one of whom accused natural gas pipeline opponents of waging a “jihad” against the agency.
Robert Powelson, a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission who made the accusation against pipeline opponents, and Neil Chatterjee, a senior energy policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), were confirmed by unanimous consent.
“The Senate just gave about as much attention to pushing through these FERC nominees as FERC gives to the impacts of fossil fuel projects they approve: Zero. This is a shameful day in shameful times for the U.S. Senate,” David Turnbull, campaigns director at Oil Change International, said in a statement issued late Thursday.
Senators who vowed to stand up to President Donald Trump on climate change missed a major opportunity by confirming the two Republican nominees, Turnbull stated. “The new wave of gas pipelines under FERC consideration would lock in dependence on fracked gas that we cannot afford to burn, while delaying our transition to clean energy,” he added.
The five-member commission currently has only one commissioner, acting chair Cheryl LaFleur, and has been without a quorum since former FERC Chairman Norman Bay resigned in early February. FERC is responsible for permitting decisions on energy projects like natural gas pipelines and export terminals. The lack of a quorum has left FERC unable to move such projects forward.
“Simply put, FERC exists as a rubber stamp for the profit-driven whims of the fossil fuel industry,” Food & Water Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said in a statement. “The Senate’s action to put FERC back in business gives a shameful green light to advance a future of poisoning, polluting dirty energy in America.”
Chatterjee will serve out the remainder of a term that ends in June 2021. Powelson, who also serves as president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, will serve out the remainder of a term that ends in June 2020. “With a quorum restored, our first order of business is the backlog of orders and issues that are awaiting commission consideration,” LaFleuer, a Democrat, said in a statement Friday.
The White House has officially filed the paperwork need for two other nominees: Richard Glick, who serves as the Democratic counsel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; and Republican Kevin McIntyre, an energy industry attorney with the Jones Day law firm. McIntyre is expected to serve as FERC chairman if confirmed by the Senate.
As with other independent federal agencies, FERC cannot have more than three commissioners from the same political party. The commission is expected to have three Republicans and two Democrats if the remaining two nominees are confirmed.
Powelson made his controversial remark in March while speaking to industry representatives at a conference in State College, Pennsylvania, according to a State Impact Pennsylvania report. “The jihad has begun,” he told the audience. “At the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, groups actually show up at commissioners homes to make sure we don’t get this gas to market. How irresponsible is that?”
In the same speech, Powelson also expressed his support for streamlining the pipeline permitting process.
Dozens of environmental groups have called for reforms that would force FERC to consider the concerns of communities and the climate impacts when reviewing natural gas infrastructure applications. In May, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), reintroduced legislation to create an Office of Public Participation and Consumer Advocacy at the agency. “Private citizens have expressed frustration that participating in FERC’s complex proceedings is extremely challenging,” the senator’s office said in a news release.
Shaheen’s bill, The Public Engagement at FERC Act, or S. 1240, would establish an office that would directly participate in FERC proceedings on rates, service, and infrastructure siting to represent the interests of residential and small commercial consumers and create a Public and Consumer Advocacy Advisory Committee for the office composed of representatives from the national and state-based nongovernmental consumer advocacy community.
“Communities being harmed by FERC’s virtually indiscriminate approval of gas pipelines will keep fighting each project and fighting for a just future. Unfortunately, Senators failed to stand with them today.” Oil Change International’s Turnbull said.