By Rich Heidorn Jr.
The ranking members of the House and Senate energy committees sent FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre a letter Wednesday demanding answers on what they called “highly partisan political remarks” by FERC Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told McIntyre they were “deeply troubled” by Pugliese’s statement at an industry conference Aug. 7 that FERC is working with the Department of Energy and National Security Council on the Trump administration’s “ill-conceived plan to interfere with the operation of the nation’s wholesale electric markets. We believe this action would violate the requirement that FERC remain a neutral and unbiased decisionmaker.”
Pugliese, a former lobbyist in Pennsylvania’s capital, and an unsuccessful state legislative candidate there, joined FERC in August 2017 after a stint at the U.S. Department of Transportation as a member of President Trump’s so-called “shadow cabinet.”
Pallone and Cantwell expressed concern over Pugliese’s Aug. 7 remarks at a conference of the American Nuclear Society and his interview with the right-wing outlet Breitbart in July, saying they “call into question his impartiality and independence from political pressure. Left unchecked, we believe such statements must ultimately call into question the impartiality and independence of the commission itself.”
During the appearances, Pugliese praised Trump and criticized Democratic governors for blocking pipelines.
“You still have some parts of the country that are controlled by members of the Democratic Party that are determined to make sure that no infrastructure goes through their states,” Pugliese said in his interview on Breitbart.
“The president has done a tremendous job of knocking down barriers to allow the economy to grow and prosper,” Pugliese added.
At the American Nuclear Society conference, Pugliese seemed to identify himself as a member of the Trump administration, ignoring FERC’s traditional independence.
In introducing Pugliese, Donald Hoffman, CEO of Excel Services, described his job as coordinating “all the activities between the five commissioners, the staff and the White House. He is S2 at FERC, which means he is basically like the deputy director, and he’s responsible for coordinating all the activities and ensuring that the policy issues are discussed appropriately.”
FERC chiefs of staff serve at the pleasure of the chairman. But Pugliese joined FERC about the same time as interim Chair Neil Chatterjee, almost four months before McIntyre.
McIntyre seemed to mark his independence in January when he joined in a 5-0 vote rejecting Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to save at-risk coal and nuclear plants and instead opened a docket to consider resilience concerns. In June, however, Trump ordered Perry to save coal and nuclear plants under an obscure Korean War-era law. (See More Questions than Answers for FERC, RTOs on Bailout.)
At the conference, Pugliese said FERC was working to identify and preserve the most critical generating plants on the grid.
“We are currently working with the House and Senate — when I say we, I mean the administration, the White House and FERC — to consider what legislative changes may need to take place to make sure that we have the authority and the ability to do just that,” he said, according to audio of his remarks, which were shared with RTO Insider by Rod Adams of Atomic Insights.
Pugliese described having “the scary job of literally sitting in a SCIF [sensitive compartmented information facility] all day and hearing about what all these … countries and nations and players are trying to do to us. And then, when we have a well populated part of the country having to import LNG from Russia because we can’t get infrastructure to provide American energy, that’s an area of concern.”
Pugliese made clear he supports payments to nuclear plants.
“We are working with DOD and DOE and NSC to identify the plants that we think would be absolutely critical to ensuring that not only our military bases but things like hospitals and other critical infrastructure are able to be maintained, regardless of what natural or man-made disasters might occur,” Pugliese said.
Pallone and Cantwell told McIntyre “you have the responsibility, as chairman, to safeguard the commission’s independence, its neutrality and its impartiality, and to uphold the professional conduct of the commission’s employees, and most especially those on your own personal staff.”
They asked the chairman to answer several questions, including whether Pugliese’s remarks “represent the views of the commission or any of its members” and whether the chairman had authorized Pugliese to “speak publicly about matters pending before the commission on behalf of the commission?”
Through a FERC spokesman, McIntyre and Pugliese declined to answer similar questions from RTO Insider on Aug. 13.
With the departure of Commissioner Rob Powelson — a Republican who had been outspoken in opposition to out-of-market payments to generators — Trump has a chance to appoint a new commissioner who may be more pliant in response to his efforts to support coal and nuclear.
Politico reported earlier this month the president plans to nominate Bernard McNamee, head of DOE’s Office of Policy, who has previously lobbied for coal and nuclear subsidies. Last November, McNamee joined Pugliese at a breakfast meeting of the Consumer Energy Alliance on the sidelines of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ Annual Meeting in Baltimore to make the case for coal and nuclear price supports. (See DOE, Pugliese Press ‘Baseload’ Rescue at NARUC.)
Despite its name, the CEA lists more than 230 corporate and business members, including utilities, chambers of commerce and trade groups. Watchdog group the Energy and Policy Institute has described CEA as “a fossil fuel-funded advocacy group.”