The Senate voted Thursday, in a party-line vote, to approve President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), despite video evidence that the nominee strongly favors fossil fuels over renewable energy and rejects the overwhelming scientific evidence behind human-caused climate change.
The nominee, Bernard McNamee, will be replacing former Commissioner Robert Powelson, who left the agency in August to lead a water company trade group. Powelson, a Republican appointee, led the charge against the president’s plan to prop up financially struggling coal and nuclear plants.
McNamee’s term will run through June 30, 2020. And during his nomination process some have voiced concern that his views will mean he won’t be an independent arbiter when it comes to his role on the commission — FERC has traditionally taken a fuel-neutral stance to its work.
Previously, McNamee worked at the Department of Energy (DOE), where he helped craft the Trump administration’s coal and nuclear bailout plan that ended up being unanimously rejected by FERC last January — the agency to which he was just confirmed. McNamee signed the cover letter to the controversial grid resiliency plan sent by DOE to FERC on September 29, 2017.
While the outcome of Thursday’s vote to confirm McNamee was expected, the close 50-49 Senate vote contained a major surprise. In an about-face, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who had previously supported McNamee’s nomination to the agency, announced Wednesday that he had changed his mind.
The West Virginia senator, known for his pro-coal stance, said in a statement that he could no longer vote to confirm McNamee after watching a recently revealed video in which the nominee denied humanity’s role in climate change.
The video showed McNamee speaking in February at conservative think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), where he previously worked. During the speech to lawmakers shown on the video, McNamee claimed that “fossil fuels are not something dirty.”
He also called carbon dioxide not a “real pollutant” and told the audience that he instructs his son to “just deny it” when climate change comes up in science class.
The video of McNamee’s speech was allegedly removed from TPPF’s website after he was nominated in early October to serve on FERC.
With the confirmation of a figure who has proven extremely controversial among industry and nongovernmental sectors, legal experts are already planning to challenge McNamee’s participation in important cases at FERC.
On Wednesday, an official with the influential Harvard Electricity Law Initiative stated that McNamee should be “disqualified” from participating in at least two issues in front of FERC because of his work in 2017 to roll out Trump’s proposal to prop up economically struggling coal and nuclear plants. The group plans to file a formal legal brief with the agency on the issue.
"Should McNamee be confirmed, the Harvard Electricity Law Initiative plans to file a brief at FERC advising that he is 'disqualified' from two pending matters and from future proceedings concerning rates for 'fuel-secure' generators." https://t.co/STg8EOqxPd
— Ari Peskoe (@AriPeskoe) December 5, 2018
McNamee has a “long history of being a partisan fossil fuel lawyer who has proactively worked to undermine clean energy’s growth,” Mary Anne Hitt, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, wrote in an op-ed published Wednesday by The Hill.
During his time at the DOE and TPPF, McNamee “has clearly proven through his work and his own words that he is nothing more than a fossil fuel surrogate intent on undermining, or even eliminating clean energy from America’s electricity markets,” Hitt said.
FERC, a historically nonpartisan agency that regulates wholesale electric power markets and interstate natural gas activities, has moved in a partisan direction under the Trump administration. In recent months, the agency’s chief of staff has taken shots at Democratic lawmakers in a Breitbart News interview and praised foreign right-wing extremist politicians while on taxpayer-funded official travel.
In early 2018, McNamee left his job as deputy general counsel for energy policy at the Department of Energy to join the TPPF, where he worked as head of the Austin, Texas-based think tank’s Center for Tenth Amendment Action and its Life:Powered project, a pro-fossil fuel program.
After only four months at the right-wing think tank, McNamee was back at DOE, serving as executive director of the department’s Office of Policy. McNamee currently works under Mark Menezes, the undersecretary of energy who serves as a point person for Trump’s push to bail out coal and nuclear power plants.
On November 27, a week after the video of McNamee had been widely released, Manchin joined all of the Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to send McNamee’s nomination to the Senate floor for a final vote.
Then this week his position shifted.
Manchin has previously blasted the Obama administration’s efforts to fight climate change during his 2018 reelection campaign for Senate. His sudden focus on climate change comes as environmental activists are opposing his potential promotion to top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2019 due to his anti-environment and pro-coal stances.
In her op-ed, Hitt criticized Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) for “recklessly” letting McNamee’s nomination move forward to a full Senate vote.
“Murkowski’s decision is all the more troubling considering that she rejected Ron Binz’s FERC nomination in 2013 because she perceived a bias in his past work on clean energy,” Hitt wrote. “Yet she was willing to overlook McNamee’s overt devotion to fossil fuels and antipathy toward America’s clean energy revolution.”
On Wednesday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) also expressed skepticism that McNamee could be a fair arbiter if a similar pricing proposal to the one he previously drafted that benefits coal and nuclear plants were presented to FERC.
McNamee has “a track record of wanting to do the bidding of special interests,” Wyden said in comments on the Senate floor before the vote to end debate on the nomination.
Trump’s nomination of McNamee is a “deliberate effort to hijack sound market-oriented principles that would naturally take you to cleaner power rather than dirty, old coal facilities.”
The Oregon senator on Wednesday also repeated what he said at McNamee’s earlier confirmation hearing: “This is putting the fox inside the chicken coop.”