By Tom Kleckner and Rich Heidorn Jr.
FERC Commissioner Robert Powelson will leave the commission after only a year to lead a lobby representing the nation’s private water companies.
“It has been an honor to serve this great country,” he said. “My family and I are deeply appreciative of this opportunity. FERC is a world class organization. Thanks to you, fellow FERCians!”
Powelson said he will leave the commission in mid-August to become president and CEO of the National Association of Water Companies. His departure could impact how the commission acts on several major initiatives, including the resilience docket FERC opened in January.
A former Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner, Powelson has been an unabashed supporter of natural gas and expressed skepticism over the Department of Energy’s effort to prop up struggling coal and nuclear plants.
“Why should we go out there and pick winners and losers in a market?” he said during a conference in March. “To do what? Hurt the other, more efficient units in the market or send bad market signals?” (See Powelson Tells New England to Learn from Pennsylvania.)
A Republican, Powelson was sworn in on Aug. 10, 2017, to a term that was to run through June 2020. His position on the five-person commission will be filled by another Republican, maintaining the GOP’s 3-2 edge.
“I’ll miss [Powelson]’s trenchant takedowns of the coal and nuclear bailout plans and can only hope he’s replaced by someone with as much vigor, expertise and sophistication,” tweeted University of Richmond law professor Joel B. Eisen.
Until a fifth commissioner is appointed, Democratic Commissioners Cheryl LaFleur and Richard Glick will have increased leverage. The two have dissented repeatedly on gas pipeline certificate orders, calling on the commission to consider the projects’ impacts on greenhouse gas emissions. (See Dem Dissents Show FERC Divide on Carbon.)
“This arrangement appears most likely to complicate — but not necessarily halt — the FERC’s approvals of natural gas pipelines and potentially other issues,” ClearView Energy Partners wrote in a note to clients Thursday night. “If Powelson’s seat remains vacant for an extended period of time, the absence of a third Republican vote could delay potential changes to the commission’s 1999 Certificate Policy Statement, which governs natural gas pipeline approvals pursuant to Section 7 of the Natural Gas Act. It is possible that further action on the commission’s ongoing resiliency docket could be delayed if the commission hits a 2-2 impasse.”
The New England Power Generators Association, which represents competitive generators, called Powelson’s departure “a major loss for FERC and all who participate in the dynamic energy markets. Commissioner Powelson has been a true leader on competitive electricity issues for years.”
But environmentalists and anti-fracking activists expressed no regrets over his departure.
“As a FERC commissioner, Robert Powelson was part of the FERC rubber stamp for pipelines,” said Maya van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “Powelson was not only a stalwart supporter of pipelines, but he was an outspoken critic of any members of the public who opposed pipelines, likening them to jihadists.”
“Powelson’s abrupt resignation doesn’t change the fact that FERC itself needs a massive change,” Mary Anne Hitt, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement. “The next commissioner must be a strong advocate for considering climate change in FERC’s decision-making process, curtailing the dangerous overbuilding of fracked gas pipelines, and stand firmly against reckless coal and nuclear plant bailouts the Trump administration and grid operators are proposing.”
In his new post, Powelson will be running a trade group representing private water utilities serving almost 73 million people, almost one quarter of the nation. While with the Pennsylvania PUC, he chaired the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ Water Committee for three years.
“Rob brings to the association tremendous experience at both the state and federal level,” Aqua America CEO Christopher Franklin, president of the NAWC Board of Directors, said in a statement. “He is taking the helm of the NAWC at an important time in the water industry. His unique skills and relationships will help to highlight the capabilities of NAWC member companies in solving some of the challenges facing many mid- and small-sized municipal water and wastewater utilities. Rob also has firsthand experience in working with utilities and regulators to encourage the investment in infrastructure that is critical in keeping our nation’s viable.”