Trump to nominate Clean Power Plan opponents to federal energy commission

In an April 28, 2017 photo, President Donald Trump gives the pen he used to sign an executive order to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who heads the committee that conducts hearings on Federal Energy Regulatory Commission nominees. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.

President Donald Trump plans to nominate a Pennsylvania utility regulator and a top Senate staffer to fill two of the three commissioner vacancies at the agency that oversees the nation’s electricity and natural gas systems.

Trump on Monday night announced that Robert Powelson, a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and Neil Chatterjee, a senior energy policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), would be his first two picks to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

A third position remains open, 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.

With only two sitting commissioners, the agency has lacked a quorum since Norman Bay, FERC’s former chairman, left the agency in early February. A fourth seat will soon be opening. Late last month, one of the two remaining FERC commissioners, Colette Honorable, said she will not seek a second term on the commission. Her current term ends June 30, but federal rules allow her to stay on until Congress adjourns at the end of year if no replacement is seated before then. The commissioner has not indicated when she plans to leave the agency.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has expressed frustration with the administration’s slow pace on nominations over the past three months. But the committee chair also has said she plans to hold hearings nominees as quickly as possible and then promptly vote on whether to move the candidates to the Senate floor for a final confirmation vote.

Powelson sparked controversy in March when he said people opposing pipeline projects are engaged in a “jihad” to keep natural gas from reaching new markets. The Pennsylvania regulator, a strong supporter of natural gas production in his home state, said he used the word jihad to describe the actions of individuals engaged in disruptive behavior. “In retrospect, that was an inappropriate choice of words,” he said in a statement to StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania PUC commissioner Robert Powelson, a Trump nominee for FERC commissinoer, appears on the cover of the February 2017 issue of American Gas magazine. CREDIT: American Gas Association

Neither nominee will serve a full five-year term. Trump intends to nominate Powelson to a term that expires June 30, 2020, and Chatterjee to a term that ends June 30, 2021.

Powelson has served as a commissioner on the Pennsylvania PUC since 2008 and currently serves as president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, a group composed of state member agencies that regulate energy, telecom, and water utilities.

In an interview with American Gas magazine, Powelson said he believes the Environmental Protection Agency’s release of the Clean Power Plan under the Obama administration demonstrated a “disconnect” between the federal government and the states. “There is a lot of fatigue associated with how the EPA rolled out and presented the CPP to the states,” he said.

Chatterjee has also spoken out against the Clean Power Plan and has a background in energy policy. Prior to serving as energy adviser to McConnell, he worked as a lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and as an aide to former Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-OH).

According to the Energy and Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group, Chatterjee spearheaded the Republican push for Senate approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, sought to undermine U.S. leadership on the Paris climate agreement, led McConnell’s campaign to convince states to oppose the Clean Power Plan, and worked to lift the ban on crude oil exports.

Many FERC observers were confused by the Trump administration’s slow pace at naming new commissioners. Some contended the delay could be a calculated move by an administration that wants to fill the open seats at FERC only with people who will uphold the president’s extreme views on energy.

“We are concerned that the delay may be related to efforts by the Trump Administration to ensure new commissioners and a new chair will adhere to this new, radical administration baseload electricity policy,” the Public Utility Law Project of New York, the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, and Public Citizen wrote in comments submitted to FERC last week.

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.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission acting chair Cheryl LaFleur is one of only two members currently seated on the five-member commission. CREDIT: AP Photo/Nati Harnik.

Both Honorable and the other existing FERC commissioner, acting chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur, are Democratic appointees. FERC can only have a maximum of three members from a particular political party, so at least two non-Republicans need to serve on the five-member commission.

According to a Huffington Post report, the Trump administration has developed a potential way to get around this tradition, a strategy that could make an agency lean more toward the president’s agenda. While Trump could not replace Honorable with a Republican, he could nominate a registered Independent who is ideologically conservative.

Update: This article previously reported, citing another news source, that FERC Commissioner Colette Honorable had agreed to remain in her position until a replacement is found. The commissioner has not indicated that she will stay on until her seat is filled, according to the commissioner’s office.