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Energy regulator nominees face Senate committee

Judy Chang, David Rosner and Lindsay See, nominees to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, are sworn in Thursday at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. (Credit: Nevada Current / Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee livestream)

Robert Zullo, Nevada Current
March 22, 2024

President Joe Biden’s three nominees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission faced questions from a U.S. Senate committee Thursday, with senators probing their views on fossil fuels and climate policy, the reliability of the nation’s electric grid and gas delivery system and how to handle the pressing need for new electric transmission lines, among other topics.

One major clean energy industry group, wary of a political fight that could leave the crucial energy regulator without a quorum during a major transition of the electric grid, called on the Senate to confirm the nominees swiftly.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and the powerful chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who has clashed with the Biden administration over climate and energy policy, called the work of the commission “enormously important” to the nation during the hearing.

“The commission’s job is to ensure the orderly development of plentiful supplies of electricity, natural gas at reasonable prices,” Manchin said. “It enables us to keep the lights on, protects the American people from excessive gas and electric rates and it protects the public interest. The job calls for people who can fairly assess the needs and concerns of all interests affected by our energy policies and apply the law.”

Manchin has taken on FERC head-on in the past, refusing to hold a confirmation hearing for former FERC Chair Richard Glick, a Democrat who had been nominated for a second term by Biden. Glick had spearheaded efforts to more thoroughly vet the need for natural gas pipelines and their environmental effects, angering Manchin.

By law, FERC has five members, with no more than three from the same political party. They are appointed by the president with the “advice and consent of the Senate” and serve five-year staggered terms. Biden is attempting to fill vacancies left by Glick, who departed in 2023, GOP commissioner James Danly, whose term expired last year, and Democrat Allison Clements, whose term expires this summer.  If no new appointments are confirmed before Clements leaves, the commission would be reduced to two members.

The nominees

At least two of Biden’s nominees could be seen as an olive branch to Manchin. One is David Rosner, a Democrat and FERC energy industry analyst who was detailed to Manchin’s committee and was recommended for the commission seat by the senator last year, Politico’s E&E News reported. Rosner was previously a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy and an associate director at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s energy project.

The other is West Virginia Solicitor General Lindsay See, a Republican who led the state’s successful legal fight against the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court. The third nominee, Judy Chang, a Democrat, is an energy economics and policy expert and adjunct lecturer and senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. She is the former undersecretary of energy and climate solutions for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

In a hearing that featured few fireworks, Chang faced the toughest grilling. Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso blasted Massachusetts for consuming more energy than it produces and blocking natural gas pipelines as part of a “radical climate agenda.”

“The last thing FERC needs is someone eager to impose the failed policies of Massachusetts on the rest of our nation,” he said.

Barrasso questioned Chang about a 2018 newspaper article in which she was quoted as saying it “doesn’t make sense” to build new gas pipelines or power plants.

“Do you still think it’s fiscally irresponsible to invest in pipelines?” Barrasso asked. Chang initially said the issue is “very complex in New England” but added that “if I had my magic wand I would love to have more gas infrastructure and gas supply” in the region.

‘Pretty civilized’

In response to repeated questions from multiple GOP senators about whether FERC is an economic or environmental regulator, the nominees agreed that is the former. They also agreed that “beneficiaries” should shoulder the costs for transmission projects, though quantifying benefits of large transmission projects, and who they extend to, is a thorny debate.FERC is expected to release a final rule to address some of those questions this spring.

“The who pays question is significant,” said Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee, who was concerned about “socializing” the costs of transmission to “ratepayers that will not benefit from those projects and did not have a say in the climate policies that have been adopted in other states.”

Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who has been pushing legislation to build more interregional transmission lines, asked whether FERC should establish minimum interregional electric transfer requirements, which would allow different parts of the electric grid to better help each other during increasing severe weather and other emergencies. All three nominees voiced interest, though See and Chang noted the importance of taking “regional differences” into account.

Sen. Bill Cassidy,  a Louisiana Republican, asked whether FERC has the authority to incorporate greenhouse gas emissions into its review of projects, a long-running debate at the agency. The nominees pledged to follow the law, though Rosner noted there are some courts that have decided the agency needs to consider certain emissions.

“According to the Natural Gas Act, it does not specify greenhouse gas as a criteria for evaluating natural gas pipelines,” Chang said.

The nominees were also asked about grid-enhancing technologies, which can improve the capacity of existing transmission lines, speeding up the connection of new power resources to the grid and local and state conflicts with federal authority over transmission, among other concerns.

But they mostly provided artful answers, noted Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program.

“I think if there’s any value to these hearings it’s that the public hears what issues the senators are interested in,” he said. “These nominees were careful to avoid saying anything that would get them into trouble with either the Republicans or Democrats.”

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, called the committee hearing “pretty civilized” and “not pitting individuals against one another or kind of the political trading that goes back and forth.”

And indeed, the tone of the hearing could signal that the nominees might face a smooth path to confirmation, Peskoe said. The Koch Industries-linked American Energy Alliance, which has been supportive of fossil fuel industries, complained that Manchin is “working with President Biden to rush these nominees through the process without much scrutiny.”

“These three nominees were selected to ease some of the political considerations,” Peskoe said. “Maybe it actually suggests we’ll have a moment of cooperation here.”

It’s never ideal for FERC to be without a quorum, like it was in 2017, but now is a particularly bad time, said Caitlin Marquis, managing director at Advanced Energy United, a clean energy trade group.

“There should be recognition from both sides that FERC without a quorum is bad for everyone. It creates uncertainty for all aspects of the energy industry,” she said. “There’s never a good time for FERC to be in turmoil but certainly this is a time of historic change in the industry.”

Manchin’s office did not respond Thursday to questions about next steps for the nominees.

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This article is republished from Nevada Current under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.