Republicans hurry nomination of coal bailout backer for position at energy regulatory agency

Bernard McNamee worked at pro-Trump think tank in Texas prior to FERC nomination.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is fast-tracking the confirmation process for FERC nominee Bernard McNamee. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is fast-tracking the confirmation process for FERC nominee Bernard McNamee. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Senate Republicans are being criticized for rushing the confirmation process for Bernard McNamee, whose hearing is scheduled for October 16, less than two weeks after President Donald Trump nominated him to serve as a commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

FERC, an agency that operates independently from the White House, has a 25-year history of supporting market-oriented solutions for operating the nation’s power system. McNamee, however, is an advocate of Trump’s push for government-mandated subsidies for troubled coal and nuclear power plants.

Critics of the coal bailout plan view the rushed confirmation process for McNamee as a clear move by Republicans to inject the Trump administration’s political agenda into a historically independent agency.

“Bernard McNamee is clearly a political plant by the Trump administration who will rubber stamp dangerous fracked gas pipelines and push coal bailout schemes that will force taxpayers to pay tens of billions of dollars to prop up uneconomic coal plants,” Mary Anne Hitt, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said Wednesday in a statement.

The Trump administration and its allies in the Senate are rushing McNamee forward, warned Hitt, because “they know that the more the public learns about his record, the more they will demand he be rejected.”


Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, agreed to schedule McNamee’s confirmation hearing only 13 days after his nomination. If his nomination comes up for a committee vote shortly after the hearing, it is likely the committee would favor sending his nomination to the full Senate on a party-line vote.

It typically takes two to 10 months for the Senate to hear from a nominee after being named by the president. The fastest Senate action on a FERC nominee was 35 days in 2006, when President George W. Bush nominated Marc Spitzer, a Republican member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, to the agency.

One of the longest confirmation processes occurred when Bush nominated Joseph Kelliher in October 2001 to FERC. Kelliher did not receive a hearing before the Senate committee until 2003. Kelliher was ultimately confirmed by unanimous voice vote of the Senate and was sworn into FERC in November 2003.

Like McNamee, Kelliher served as a top adviser at the Department of Energy (DOE) when he was nominated to FERC.

McNamee, meanwhile, previously worked at a conservative think tank. In February, he left his job as deputy general counsel for energy policy at the Department of Energy to head the far-right Texas Public Policy Foundation’s (TPPF) Center for Tenth Amendment Action and its Life:Powered project, a pro-fossil fuel program. The Life:Powered project released a video in May attacking proponents of renewable energy.


After only four months at TPPF, McNamee was back at DOE, serving as executive director of the department’s Office of Policy. In this position, McNamee has played a central role in an attempt to undermine wholesale energy markets for the benefit of the coal industry — an attempt FERC has blocked to date.

McNamee worked on DOE’s coal and nuclear bailout plan that was unanimously rejected by FERC in January. He signed the cover letter to the controversial grid resiliency plan sent by DOE to FERC on September 29, 2017.

Given McNamee’s history in the Trump administration as a supporter of pro-coal policies, Hitt contends Senate Republicans “are trying to force his nomination through without due diligence or a reasonable timeline to get all the facts on the record.”

“This is indicative of a concerted effort,” argued Hitt, “to erode FERC’s longtime independence and that his nomination is not about his philosophy or qualifications, but the politics of doing the fossil fuel industry’s bidding at the federal level.”


Hitt called on members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee  to use next Tuesday’s hearing to examine McNamee’s record and past statements to Congress, especially those he has made in support of the FERC-rejected coal bailout.

If McNamee were confirmed as a FERC commissioner, Trump would gain a decisive vote on a commission that’s currently split 2-2, warned Kim Smaczniak, a staff attorney with the Clean Energy Program at Earthjustice.

“With critical matters looming ahead on FERC’s agenda, this is dangerous. As Executive Director of the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy, McNamee played a central role in an attempt to undermine wholesale energy markets for the benefit of the coal industry — an attempt FERC has blocked to date,” Smaczniak wrote Monday in a blog post.

The TPPF, McNamee’s former employer, has extremely close ties to the Trump administration. Even though the think tank bills itself supportive of free market ideals, the TPPF has not publicly stated its opposition to Trump’s coal and nuclear bailout plan.

McNamee is among at least eight TPPF officials with close ties to the Trump administration. These former TPPF officials have filled top roles in the Trump administration and are working to promote pro-fossil fuel and anti-environment policies at the national level.

Despite Republican control of the Senate, energy industry analysts believe McNamee could face some resistance in the confirmation process and that a pre-midterm election Senate confirmation for McNamee may not be possible.

In an October 4 note to its clients, energy industry analysts Height Capital Markets  said it expects “a tough Senate confirmation process that will likely take the remainder of the year,” S&P Global Market Intelligence recently reported.

“While announcing the bailout scheme before the midterms may be politically appealing to Trump in the short-term,” the industry analysts said, “we think introducing the new rule before McNamee is situated at FERC could raise the stakes on his Senate confirmation, given the widespread opposition to the proposal.”