Anti-fossil fuel activists take war against energy agency to Capitol Hill

Agency’s lack of a quorum is a “net positive for the climate,” group says.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), seen here at an April 20, 2016, news conference, oversaw a FERC commissioner confirmation hearing on May 25, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), seen here at an April 20, 2016, news conference, oversaw a FERC commissioner confirmation hearing on May 25, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Five protesters interrupted a Senate confirmation hearing at different times Thursday, chanting “FERC is killing Pennsylvanians” and “Shut FERC down.” The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was considering the nominations of Robert Powelson and Neil Chatterjee for positions on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Facing long odds, the activists are trying to prevent the Senate from confirming the nominees. If they are confirmed, FERC will once again have a quorum, which will allow its commissioners to resume the process of approving applications for natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities.

FERC’s lack of a quorum over the past four months — the five-member agency has had only two commissioners — has turned into a “net positive for the climate” due to the slowdown in the number of natural gas infrastructure projects receiving permits, Oil Change International, an anti-fossil fuel research and advocacy group, explained in response to the confirmation hearing.

The years-long campaign against FERC’s handling of natural gas permit applications has included coordinated disruptions of the agency’s monthly meetings. Typically, the activists are escorted out of FERC’s headquarters by security guards, without facing charges. But this time, four of the five who attended the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing were arrested by U.S. Capitol police officers.

All four were charged with obstruction. One activist was released after paying a fine and the other three were detained overnight and have an arraignment on Friday.

The activists hope their campaign against FERC’s approval of natural gas infrastructure projects will ultimately reverberate in states like Pennsylvania and Colorado where huge volumes of natural gas are getting extracted, primarily through the use of fracking.

Without an expanded pipeline network, companies would likely be forced to leave natural gas in the ground, according to the activists. Natural gas is mostly methane, a super-potent greenhouse gas, which traps 86 times as much heat as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

“Their rubber-stamping of fracked gas permits disregards the harms such projects inflict on communities, towns, and the climate,” Lee Stewart, an organizer with Beyond Extreme Energy and one of the four arrested in the hearing room, said in a statement. “Until FERC is replaced with an agency dedicated to a just transition off fossil fuels and to an exploitation-free energy system based on localized, renewable energy, business as usual is unacceptable.”

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., FERC regulates the interstate transmission of natural gas, oil, and electricity and oversees the wholesale sale of electricity. The commission’s policies have played a major role in determining the extent to which renewable energy, energy storage, and energy efficiency are integrated into power markets.

At Thursday’s confirmation hearing, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) complained that FERC has lacked a quorum for the first time since the agency was created 40 years ago. With only two commissioners, decisions on major applications have slowed or stalled, putting roughly $50 billion worth of energy projects at risk, she said, citing a Bloomberg article.

Murkowski plans to promptly seek a vote on whether to move the candidates to the Senate floor, where they are expected to be easily confirmed.

A third position remains open at the agency, with many FERC observers expecting Trump to name Kevin McIntyre, who co-leads law firm Jones Day’s global energy practice. Powelson and Chatterjee, along with McIntyre, are Republicans.

During the hearing, Powelson, a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and Chatterjee, a senior energy policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), pointed to the continued use of coal, natural gas, and nuclear as good options for meeting the nation’s need for baseload power generation.

The nominees also acknowledged the need for a diversified generation fuel mix, one that includes the use of renewable energy sources, to maintain a reliable electric grid reliability.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) presides over the confirmation hearing of two nominees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a deputy energy secretary nominee. CREDIT: Beyond Extreme Energy
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) presides over the confirmation hearing of two nominees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a deputy energy secretary nominee. CREDIT: Beyond Extreme Energy

Powelson stated that renewables could help to diversify a generation portfolio that will rely primarily on nuclear and fossil fuels to meet their baseload power needs. “We’re going to need it all,” he said.

Above all else, the Pennsylvania native expressed excitement about the future use of natural gas. The surge in drilling in the United States over the past decade, especially in his home state, has caused a “tectonic shift” toward a greater use of natural gas for power generation, he said.

The other nominee, Chatterjee, explained that natural gas could be used as a fuel for both baseload and peaking generation purposes. Ensuring grid reliability is key and will occur if a region has “diverse fuel sources, including strong baseload power,” Chatterjee said.

At the hearing, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) told the nominees that he hopes electric utility companies do not discriminate against wind, solar, energy storage, and distributed energy resources. “Storage and wind is part of the baseload we’re talking about,” Franken said.

In early May, FERC held a meeting to discuss how state support for certain generation resources, like renewables and nuclear, affects the operation of regional electric grid systems in the eastern United States. Consumer advocates were troubled by the timing of the conference as it coincided with a memorandum from Energy Secretary Rick Perry that directed his agency to investigate into how federal subsidies boost one form of energy at the expense of baseload generation.

The memo sent by Perry to his chief of staff, as well as subsequent statements by the Energy secretary, highlight the Trump administration’s intent to use “national security” powers to halt state renewable state renewable energy and climate initiatives for the sake of promoting coal and nuclear baseload generation, advocacy groups said in comments submitted to FERC.

“Of course, while the Department of Energy actually lacks clear authority to implement the sweeping proposals suggested in the memo, FERC likely does have the power to do so,” the groups said in their comments.

At the hearing, Dan Brouillette, Trump’s nominee to be deputy secretary of energy, testified along with Powelson and Chatterjee. Brouillette, the nominee for deputy energy secretary, said he has not been briefed on the DOE grid study. “I think it’s going to be an internal study at this point,” he told the senators.

The two FERC nominees declined to state their positions on whether the agency, faced with a goal of maintaining electric power reliability, should interfere in the states where renewable energy resources have grown at a rapid rate. “I will keep an open mind,” Powelson told the Senate committee, who added he holds the philosophy of “do no harm to the states.”

The nominees were less hesitant to express their views when asked about liquefied natural gas export terminals, particularly the proposed Jordan Cove LNG facility in Coos Bay, Oregon. Both nominees said they support the construction of LNG export facilities. “Today, we are moving forward to really dominating the international landscape” with natural gas export opportunities, Powelson said.

In a statement, David Turnbull, campaigns director at Oil Change International, accused Powelson and Chatterjee of having track records that will not lead to the reform needed to stop FERC’s pro-natural gas bias.

During his tenure at the Pennsylvania PUC, Powelson has strongly supported fracking in the state and the construction of new natural gas pipelines. In March, Powelson caused a stir for saying that people protesting pipeline projects were engaged in a “jihad” against natural gas.

According to Oil Change International, Chatterjee has been McConnell’s “right-hand man” in attacking climate policies like the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and pushing through the Keystone XL pipeline.

Both FERC nominees and the senators at the hearing refused to concede that increased reliance on natural gas through new pipelines and LNG facilities is incompatible with a stable climate, Turnbull said. “Meanwhile, concerned citizens expressing their deep reservations with the work of this commission were thrown out of the room one by one,” he said. “A fitting metaphor if there ever was one.”