President Donald Trump reportedly plans to fill a vacancy at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) with a former top official at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative research and advocacy group that advocates for deregulation.
Bernard McNamee, the former head of TPPF’s Center for Tenth Amendment Action, was named in a Politico report on Wednesday as the replacement for Commissioner Robert Powelson, whose last day at FERC will be Friday. Powelson, a Republican appointee, led the charge against the president’s plan to prop up financially struggling coal and nuclear plants.
If McNamee gets confirmed, it’s likely Trump’s bailout plan will have a better shot of getting the necessary approvals from FERC.
The TPPF Center for Tenth Amendment Action conducts research into ways that the federal government’s powers should be limited. The center is part of a movement that believes the 10th Amendment of the Constitution prohibits many federal spending programs and regulations.
Despite its past adherence to free market ideals and opposition to government interference in energy markets, TPPF, headquartered in Austin, Texas, has been silent in the wake of Trump ordering the Department of Energy to look into ways to help save ailing coal and nuclear plants.
At least half a dozen former TPPF officials hold positions in the Trump administration, seemingly explaining why the think tank does not want to upset its close relationship with the White House by coming out against one of Trump’s signature energy policy proposals. The group’s views also align with Trump’s strong support for the fossil fuel industry, including the burning of coal.
At a July Senate hearing, McNamee said electricity markets “have distortions in them that aren’t representative of an actual free-serving market, so the thought is you need to remove some of those distortions and get some more parity.”
Utility Dive reported Wednesday that McNamee’s arguments are similar to Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s talking points in favor of subsidizing coal and nuclear plants. Because there is “no free market” in the energy industry, according to the argument, saving uneconomic plants from retirement will not undermine market functions.
But as a commissioner at FERC, McNamee would be a part of an independent federal agency that is statutorily required to ensure the transmission and wholesale sale of electricity and natural gas across state lines is regulated in the public interest.
In February, McNamee left his job as deputy general counsel for energy policy at the Department of Energy to head TPPF’s 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. 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.
Sources told Politico that the Trump administration’s proposed rescue of economically struggling coal and nuclear plants served as a key litmus test for evaluating a replacement for Powelson.
Reports of McNamee’s expected nomination to FERC are emerging at the same time as news reports about FERC working closely with Trump administration officials at the Department of Energy and National Security Council to identify which power plants are “critical” to the power grid.
E&E News reported Thursday that FERC Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese told a meeting of the American Nuclear Society that the commission is looking for ways to “value resilience” and ensure that “baseload” 24-hour-a-day generators are kept in business.
Based on his work at Trump’s DOE, it is likely McNamee supports efforts to provide a boost to coal and nuclear plants at the expense of cheaper power generation sources.
In response to the E&E News report, Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, tweeted Thursday that “this is disturbing new evidence that an independent agency is being politicized to help the Trump Administration bail out its pals in the coal & nuke industry with your tax dollars.”
“It appears that certain FERC staff are working directly with the Trump White House to find failing coal and nuke plants to bail out — an unprecedented erosion of FERC’s independence to rig the system, all to benefit the execs that made bad investments,” Hitt said in a follow-up tweet.
It appears that certain FERC staff are working directly with the Trump White House to find failing coal and nuke plants to bail out — an unprecedented erosion of FERC’s independence to rig the system, all to benefit the execs that made bad investments. #NoCoalBailouts (3/5)
— Mary Anne Hitt (@maryannehitt) August 9, 2018
Along with holding a senior position at TPPF, McNamee previously worked as a partner with the law firm of McGuireWoods LLP and was also chief of staff to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, and an aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Cruz joined TPPF as a senior fellow in March 2010 where he helped launch the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies. Two years later, Cruz won election to the U.S. Senate.
Politico said it is unclear when Trump will formally nominate McNamee to FERC. If he does get nominated, it would presumably take several months — perhaps well into 2019 — before the Senate would vote on his nomination.