By Rich Heidorn Jr. and Michael Brooks
WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania regulator Robert Powelson and Neil Chatterjee, senior energy policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), received a mostly friendly reception Thursday at their Senate confirmation hearings to fill two Republican vacancies on FERC.
Aside from several interruptions by anti-pipeline activists, the two-hour hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was largely uneventful with no obvious stumbles by the nominees nor attacks by senators.
The tenor of the hearing suggested Powelson and Chatterjee should have no problem winning confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate to restore the commission’s quorum, which was lost in February with the resignation of former Chairman Norman Bay.
Powelson and Chatterjee, who are seeking terms expiring in 2020 and 2021, respectively, testified along with Dan Brouillette, President Trump’s nominee to be deputy secretary of energy.
Each nimbly tap danced in response to questions on senators’ pet concerns — favored Department of Energy labs, pipeline and hydro projects, state incentives to save nuclear generation, the fate of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository — promising to consider the issues but not committing themselves to positions.
Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) pledged at the end of the hearing to bring the nominees to a committee vote quickly after they answer any written questions from the senators. “My hope is to be able to advance your names quickly, along with that of [nominee for Interior Department deputy secretary, David Bernhardt], so that we can process these nominees for the FERC, for DOE, for DOI and allow the business to proceed.”
The mild tone of the questions was a stark contrast to the grilling Bay — a Democrat and former prosecutor — received at his confirmation hearing in 2014, when Republicans attacked his record as chief of FERC enforcement. (See LaFleur Cruises, Bay Bruises in Confirmation Hearing.)
That’s not to say the hearing was devoid of partisanship.
Murkowski blamed Bay for resigning and former President Obama for refusing to fill Republican vacancies on the commission last year (by some accounts, a response to the Senate’s refusal to consider Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland). “As a result of those factors, this is the first time in 40 years that FERC has lacked a quorum,” she said.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), sitting in for ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), countered that Bay had informed the Trump transition team he would resign if replaced as chair. He noted it took Trump three months to name nominees.
Franken also took the opportunity to criticize Trump’s proposed Energy Department budget cuts and its rollback of the Obama administration’s clean energy and climate policies.
“Both the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can play a key role in the clean energy revolution, or they can hold us back while our international competitors reap the rewards,” he said. “That is the prism through which I will consider the nominees that we hear from today.”
Later, in response to Franken’s question about what needs to be done to allow distributed energy technologies to participate in the markets, Chatterjee pledged: “I’m in favor of markets. I’m in favor of competition. And I’m in favor of technology, particularly technologies of interest to consumers.”
Climate Change Question
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) asked the nominees whether they believed in manmade climate change.
“I’m not a climate denier,” Powelson responded, adding that “market-based solutions” were adding natural gas and renewables and reducing carbon emissions in Pennsylvania.
Chatterjee — who was central in McConnell’s fight against the EPA Clean Power Plan — said he would insist that any policy to cut carbon emissions not undermine the grid. “The first issue at FERC is to oversee reliability. I think that any policy … that seeks to mitigate carbon emissions, we have to ensure that it not have a negative impact on reliability,” he said.
“The climate is changing and we’re all living here, so it must have some impact,” Brouillette said.
Duckworth also asked the FERC nominees for their position on state energy initiatives, such as Illinois’ zero-emission credits for nuclear plants.
“I’m a state’s rights individual,” said Powelson, adding that “nuclear power is part of our energy mix and we’re going to need it.”
Chatterjee also promised, “I believe in states’ rights.”
A Plug for Coal
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) made his case for a continued role for coal in the nation’s generation portfolio, saying it is an essential part of “baseload power. “All that we’re asking for is a proper mix,” he said. “I’m being told by the utility companies the proper mix isn’t being enforced because of certain conditions and certain requirements that the previous FERC has put on them.
“There’s going to be a fuel of the future, I’m sure in 10 to 20, 30 years from now,” he continued. “But right now we have to use — in the cleanest fashion we can — what we have that we can depend on.”
Responding to Sen. Martin Heinrich’s (D-N.M.) question about the commission’s role in transmission development, Powelson said if confirmed, he wanted to “immediately sit down with our regional transmission organizations and independent system operators and see where the bottlenecks are, what’s working and what’s not working.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) asked the FERC nominees for their views of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, passed in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis.
Powelson called PURPA “a 1978 vintage document. It was addressing a scarcity issue … and the generation mix has changed today.” He promised to look at “what’s working with PURPA and what’s not” if confirmed.
“But I say this respectfully, a Congressional review of PURPA — a PURPA 2.0 doctrine — might be part of a potential energy bill.”
Chatterjee echoed Powelson’s sentiments. “Any major changes to PURPA would be made by Congress, and while you have my assurance I would work very seriously on this issue should I be confirmed, I think any major changes need to come from this body and not from FERC,” he said. (See related story, PURPA Critics Call for Reforms.)
Paths to FERC
Powelson, a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, is the current president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. “What I learned from my experience at NARUC is what works in Pennsylvania might not work in other jurisdictions and the proud appreciation we each have for our individual states’ rights in supporting our states’ energy policies,” he said in his opening remarks.
Chatterjee, a former lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, became McConnell’s energy adviser in 2011 after working for two years as a staff aide for the coal state senator. Noting the tradition of bipartisanship and consensus at the commission, he touted his ability to compromise with Democratic senators in pushing through legislation.
“We call Neil ‘the Boxer whisperer’ in my office — a term of endearment, I assure you,” McConnell told the committee in his introduction, referring to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “His work was key in forging alliances between Sen. Boxer, myself … and others that ultimately resulted in bipartisan agreement.”
Franken said Trump should quickly fill the remaining Republican vacancy and nominate a Democrat to replace Commissioner Colette Honorable, who announced she would not seek a new term when hers expires in June.
Numerous reports have identified Kevin McIntyre, co-head of the energy practice at law firm Jones Day, as the third Republican nominee and likely chairman.
“It is important that we restore the quorum at this commission. But it is equally important that the president nominate two more members to fill the remaining vacancies — one a Democrat, and one Republican — and maintain the party balance that the law requires,” Franken said.
The hearing was interrupted several times by protesters from environmental group Beyond Extreme Energy, who chanted “FERC hurts families” and “Shut FERC down.” The group has used the same modus operandi to disrupt FERC open meetings.
Police removed and arrested four protesters, including Lee Stewart, who had tied himself to a chair and had to be carried out along with it. One demonstrator left behind a noisemaker that filled the hearing room briefly with a piercing shriek until it was removed. “Until Congress investigates the agency’s abuses of power and law, the Senate must not approve new FERC commissioners,” the group said in a statement.
At the end of the hearing, Murkowski praised the nominees’ young children, who sat with their mothers in the front row. “You’ve been extraordinarily well behaved,” she said in an apparent dig at the protesters. “I think you set a fine example for grownups.”