Senators on Thursday grilled President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) about his participation in the administration’s plans to aid struggling coal and nuclear plants and whether he could distance himself from the role he played if confirmed to the commission.
The nominee, Bernard McNamee, worked on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) coal and nuclear bailout plan that was unanimously rejected by FERC last January. He signed the cover letter to the controversial grid resiliency plan sent by DOE to FERC on September 29, 2017.
At Thursday’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) expressed skepticism that McNamee could be a fair arbiter if a similar pricing proposal that benefits coal and nuclear plants were presented to FERC.
The Oregon senator emphasized that McNamee’s nomination goes beyond letting the fox guard the chicken house. “This is putting the fox inside the chicken coop,” Wyden said of Trump’s decision to nominate McNamee.
In September 2017, DOE Secretary Rick Perry asked FERC — which oversees the U.S. grid and regulates interstate electricity transmission — to adopt a new federal rule that would require Americans to buy more coal and nuclear power, effectively a customer bailout at the expense of cheaper renewable sources and natural gas. FERC, in a unanimous vote that included three Republicans, rejected the administration’s bailout plan.
The Trump administration has sought to implement a plan to invoke wartime emergency powers to justify multibillion-dollar bailouts for economically struggling coal and nuclear plants.
Asked whether his involvement in the DOE’s coal and nuclear support plan will unduly influence his work if he is confirmed to the commission, McNamee said: “I can honestly say that I will be in an independent arbiter.”
With regard to U.S. grid reliability and resilience, he added “it does not appear at this point on a general nationwide basis that there is an emergency.”
If confirmed to FERC, McNamee, however, declined to say whether he would recuse himself from a proceeding brought before the commission that resembled the one that he helped to draft. McNamee, a lawyer, said he would need to consult with ethics officials at FERC before deciding whether to recuse himself.
.@SenAngusKing: Is surprised and disappointed by Bernard "Coal Bailout" McNamee not pledging to recuse himself from coal bailout issues he worked on if they come before FERC. We are right there with you Senator. #BailoutBernard
— Sierra Club Live (@SierraClubLive) November 15, 2018
In early June, Trump ordered Perry to take “immediate steps” to bail out unprofitable coal and nuclear plants. Yet, over the summer, none of FERC’s members agreed that the country’s power grid faces a dire enough emergency to justify a Trump administration plan to invoke national security to save the power plants.
Severe weather can threaten both on-site coal storage and nuclear power plant operations. A recent report, however, from PJM Interconnection, the grid operator for 13 states and the District of Columbia, found that there is no immediate threat to their electricity reliability due to uncertain fuel supply, as the Trump administration claims.
In her opening remarks at the confirmation hearing, Senate Energy and Commerce Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski said she hopes to report McNamee’s nomination to the full Senate shortly after Thanksgiving if the committee backs his nomination.
Murkowski also urged McNamee to sever his ties with the Trump administration’s coal and nuclear bailout plans.
“We expect the FERC to be that independent, unbiased entity and to act in a manner that again you’re not picking the winners and losers, you are not tipping the scales based on political perspective, but that you truly are evaluating these considerations that are so important,” Murkowski said at the hearing.
If confirmed, McNamee would replace former Commissioner Robert Powelson, whose 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.
In February, McNamee left his job as deputy general counsel for energy policy at the Department of Energy to head the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s (TPPF) Center for Tenth Amendment Action and its Life:Powered project, a pro-fossil fuel program.
After only four months at right-wing think tank, McNamee was back at DOE, serving as executive director of the department’s Office of Policy. McNamee now 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.
In an op-ed published by The Hill earlier this year in conjunction with Earth Day, McNamee wrote that Americans should “reflect about how the responsible use of America’s abundant resources of natural gas, oil and coal have dramatically improved the human condition — and continue to do so.”
McNamee’s past career has also seen him work for the law firm McGuireWoods from 2006 to 2013 and then again from 2016 to 2017, where he represented both energy and utility clients in rate cases, as well as in their efforts to get the necessary permits to build both generating facilities and transmission lines.
Environmental groups are calling on the Senate to reject McNamee and instead confirm a nominee who pays close attention to the potential negative impacts on the environment and climate impacts when reviewing energy infrastructure applications.
Maya van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said Tuesday in a statement: “The agency has a demonstrated bias in favor of the fossil fuel industry that needs to be addressed, to stand firm against the confirmation of Donald Trump’s latest FERC Commissioner nominee until the agency has been reviewed and needed reforms to the agency’s process have been identified and put in place by Congress” through reform of the Natural Gas Act.
Shane Capra, an organizer with environmental group Beyond Extreme Energy, pointed out a promising sign at the commission: its two Democratic members — Cheryl LaFleur and Richard Glick — recently voted against natural gas infrastructure projects. FERC, however, still approved the projects because LaFleur and Glick were outnumbered by the commission’s Republican majority.
“That’s why BXE is working to expand the cracks within FERC, by opposing and delaying as long as possible the Trump nomination of Bernard McNamee,” Capra said in a statement.
Commenting on the Trump administration’s plans to use national security arguments in favor of propping up coal and nuclear, Luke Bassett, associate director for domestic energy at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement: “The Trump administration’s coal bailout scheme, which McNamee first helped launch, now relies on national security justifications that have been proven false.”
(ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed within the Center for American Progress.)
McNamee was introduced at Thursday’s confirmation hearing by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), for whom he used to work as an energy adviser from 2013 to 2014.
“Bernie’s policy advice was particularly useful because it was also informed by his practical experience of having been an energy lawyer” for electric and natural gas utility companies, Cruz said in his introductory comments.
But during his comments, Wyden said at the hearing that “It’s obscene the lengths this administration will go to prop up its friends in the coal and nuclear industries, and at the expense of American families just struggling to pay their utility bills.”
“I will oppose any effort that will pick the pockets of American families to bailout uncompetitive, dirty energy,” he continued, “and that means rejecting Mr. McNamee’s nomination.”