Monday, February 18, 2019

UPDATED: Chatterjee Dodges as DOE Spins on Coal Bailout

By Rich Heidorn Jr.

ARLINGTON, Va. — FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee and Assistant Energy Secretary Bruce Walker pledged to continue their work on grid resilience Wednesday following the apparent demise of the Trump administration’s latest plan to prop up struggling coal and nuclear plants.

The two appeared at the Department of Energy’s Electricity Advisory Committee meeting, where Walker charged the panel with reconsidering current practices on spinning reserves, calling it wasteful to have 15% of capacity “doing no work.”

Walker also did a little spinning of his own, insisting that DOE’s “leaked pre-decisional memo” calling for price supports for “fuel secure” generation was never about propping up nuclear plants or the coal industry. The memo became public at the beginning of June, after Trump — who had made saving the coal industry a signature campaign promise — directed Energy Secretary Rick Perry to “prepare immediate steps to stop the loss” of fuel-secure generators facing retirement. (See Trump Orders Coal, Nuke Bailout, Citing National Security.)

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Assistant Energy Secretary Bruce Walker | © RTO Insider

“It was not focused on coal or nuclear,” Walker said. “It was a recognition that there has been a significant change in the portfolio of generation throughout the United States … most notably a significant reliance on natural gas pipelines for electric generation.”

Talking to reporters after his speech, Walker elaborated. “The fact is, the words in the pre-decisional memo were ‘all fuel secure generation.’ Everybody misinterpreted the words for whatever political reasons they chose to,” he said. “There’s liquid natural gas that can have on-site fuel. There’s biomass conversion that has on-[site] fuel. … Pump storage, that’s fuel-secure generation. Hydro, that’s fuel-secure generation.”

Chatterjee in a Rush

The normally gregarious Chatterjee rushed with aides to an awaiting SUV immediately after his remarks from the podium, declining to take questions from the committee and refusing to talk with reporters.

ferc neil chatterjee department of energy

FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee | © RTO Insider

Asked how the apparent failure of the Trump/Perry plan would affect FERC’s work, Chatterjee said, “We’ve got our resilience docket open.

“We’ll continue to work on it,” he said, getting into the car. FERC opened the resilience docket in January after rejecting DOE’s earlier bid to help coal and nuclear plants. (See FERC Rejects DOE Rule, Opens RTO ‘Resilience’ Inquiry.)

Was the demise of the DOE plan disappointing to him? “I didn’t even know what they were considering,” Chatterjee said.

McIntyre’s Future

Chatterjee’s haste may have had less to do with the coal and nuclear plan than with rumors that FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre, who has been battling a brain tumor, may announce his resignation. Chatterjee — who had reportedly visited the White House on Oct. 16 — declined to respond to reporters’ questions about McIntyre’s status and whether he would resume as acting chairman.

McIntyre did not attend the commission’s open meeting Thursday, the second he has missed since a fall that left him visibly uncomfortable at the meeting in July. (See Ailing McIntyre Absent from FERC Open Meeting.)

Chatterjee noted McIntyre’s absence as he opened Thursday’s meeting, saying “My prayers are with him and his family.”

“I’m very sorry Chairman McIntyre is not able to be here today, and I continue to send warm wishes to him for his recovery,” Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur said.

In March, McIntyre issued a statement saying he had undergone “successful surgery” for a “relatively small” brain tumor that was discovered in summer 2017. He said he did not intend to provide further details or updates for privacy reasons.

At the July meeting, he wore a sling after disclosing he had injured his arm and suffered compression fractures in two of his vertebrae in a fall. (See “McIntyre Toughs it out,” FERC Says Farewell to Powelson.)

Although he was not present for the September meeting, McIntyre participated in its votes; he was not recorded as voting on Thursday.

Sources have told RTO Insider that the chairman is often absent from FERC headquarters and that meetings with him have been frequently rescheduled as a result. Spokeswoman Mary O’Driscoll last month declined to answer questions on the subject.

Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese told reporters after Thursday’s meeting that the chairman would issue a statement on his status within a few days.

With the resignation of Republican Commissioner Robert Powelson in August, the commission is now split 2-2 between Republicans and Democrats. Earlier this month, President Trump nominated the Department of Energy’s Bernard McNamee as Powelson’s replacement. (See Trump Nominates DOE’s McNamee to FERC.)

Perry: Out of Our Hands

DOE’s Walker, who heads the Office of Electricity, did not explicitly confirm the numerous news reports that the White House had rejected DOE’s proposal following opposition from the National Security Council and National Economic Council. Perry told reporters in September that DOE had finished its resilience proposal and was awaiting a White House decision.

The memo outlined “one of the many possible solutions,” Walker said. “We are focused on national security. We will continue to look at what are the things that best support the infrastructure that’s needed under national security.”