President Donald Trump on Wednesday nominated Bernard McNamee, a far-right political operative, to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), where he will have the opportunity to push the independent agency toward supporting Trump’s pro-coal agenda.
If McNamee is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the agency will return to a full complement of commissioners — three Republicans and two Democrats. So far, FERC has been reluctant to support the White House’s pro-coal agenda.
But if a political ideologue like McNamee succeeds in joining Neil Chatterjee, a strong pro-Trump voice on the commission, experts worry FERC could cave into pressure from the White House to implement policies that favor coal-fired power plants over the commission’s generally fuel-neutral stance on wholesale power market issues.
“FERC has a longstanding commitment to fuel-neutral regulation, but Mr. McNamee’s past writings and career track record suggest that he would seek every opportunity possible to support fossil fuels,” John Moore, director of the Sustainable FERC Project housed within the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Wednesday in a statement.
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.”
Moore said McNamee should be prepared to answer “some very hard questions about his previous comments and positions, and how they would affect FERC independence.”
McNamee, the former head of Texas Public Policy Foundation’s (TPPF) Center for Tenth Amendment Action, would replace Commissioner Robert Powelson, who surprised many FERC observers by resisting the Trump administration’s calls for FERC to do the bidding of the White House.
Powelson, a Republican appointee, stepped in and lead the charge against the president’s plan to prop up financially struggling coal and nuclear plants. If McNamee gets confirmed, though, it’s likely Trump’s bailout plan will have a better shot of getting the necessary approvals from FERC.
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.
McNamee is among a handful of people to go through the revolving door between the Trump administration and the Texas think tank. 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. In this position, McNamee has played a central role in an attempt to undermine wholesale energy markets for the benefit of the coal industry — an attempt FERC has blocked to date.
McNamee’s nomination comes as FERC faces increasing criticism after partisan comments made by commission Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese, who had no energy policy experience prior to be named to the position in 2017.
FERC, a historically nonpartisan agency, 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.
Despite Pugliese’s controversial statements about working with the White House on a coal bailout plan, FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre, a long-time industry attorney prior to being nominated to lead FERC, has defended Pugliese’s work at the commission.
“The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — long an uncontroversial, nonpartisan, and little-known administrative body — is already becoming dangerously politicized, and the appointment of Bernard McNamee, a diehard ally of the fossil fuel industry and right-wing operative, would make things far worse,” Kim Smacziniak, a clean energy staff attorney at the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, said Wednesday in a statement.
“There’s no question,” Smacziniak said, “that President Trump is attempting to install McNamee as a pivotal vote on the Commission to rig the game for dirty fossil fuel interests.”
Not surprisingly, the coal industry welcomed McNamee’s nomination. Michelle Bloodworth, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a major industry lobbying group, called for a swift confirmation process for McNamee.
“FERC has a critical role in assuring that wholesale markets value resilience attributes, especially fuel security,” Bloodworth said in a statement Wednesday. “McNamee’s background and experience at the state and federal levels make him well qualified to be the next FERC commissioner.”
According to ACCCE analysis, nearly 120,000 megawatts of coal-fired power plant capacity — about 40 percent of the nation’s coal fleet — has retired or announced plans to retire. The group is hoping that McNamee, in his position as a FERC commissioner, can help implement Trump’s plans to save some of these plants.
FERC has undergone a fascinating evolution over the past year. While Trump has tried to fill FERC’s open seats with commissioners who will toe the White House line, the Democrats on the commission — for the first time in the commission’s history — have taken more aggressive stance on reviewing proposed pipeline projects. FERC is no longer the rubber-stamp for natural gas pipeline project, where the commission unanimously votes in favor of a controversial project.
In March, for example, Commissioners Cheryl LaFleur and Richard Glick, two Democratic commissioners, voted against reinstating approval of the Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline in the U.S. Southeast. The commissioners stressed the need for further evaluation in assessing the pipeline’s environmental impact, including how it could exacerbate climate change.
“We agree with Commissioner Glick’s dissent when he said, ‘the void in evaluating indirect environmental impacts from [greenhouse gas] emissions while simultaneously concluding there is no significant impact means the commission remains in the unstable position of granting certificates of public convenience and necessity without fully considering the public interest,'” Sierra Club Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign Director Kelly Martin said in a statement at the time.
Another fox in the hen house – Trump just nominated Bernard McNamee, the architect of his failed DOE #coal bailout scheme, as commissioner at @FERC, the very same entity that rejected the bailout in the first place. My statement for @SierraClub: https://t.co/TbKMtR1C4h pic.twitter.com/YXvHyc63ei
— Mary Anne Hitt (@maryannehitt) October 3, 2018
Upon learning of McNamee’s nomination on Wednesday, the Sierra Club referred to McNamee as “nothing more than a political plant” for Energy Secretary Rick Perry and President Trump who are trying to use FERC to “manipulate America’s electricity markets to bailout dirty and expensive coal plants that are heading toward retirement, while locking in a fossil fuel future for communities across the country.”
“Senators must reject this nomination to ensure the FERC remains an independent agency that puts the priorities of the people first, not polluters,” Mary Anne Hitt, senior director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in response to McNamee’s nomination.