By Michael Brooks
WASHINGTON — Bernard McNamee attended his first open meeting as a FERC commissioner on Thursday, where he was greeted by protests and questions of whether he would recuse himself from the agency’s dockets on grid resilience.
McNamee, who was sworn in Dec. 11, declined to vote on the commission’s consent agenda for the meeting, which did not feature any discussion items or presentations by staff. Instead, he simply marked himself as “present.”
“Some have asked me what’s going to be my agenda here at FERC. That always seems to be the first question I get asked by most people,” McNamee said in his opening remarks. “I can sum it up in one word: ‘listen.’”
He said he is still interviewing potential staff and didn’t want to rush his decisions on issues. “I expect to fully participate in the commission’s proceedings and decisions soon, but for now, I just plan to listen.”
McNamee left the room almost immediately after the meeting ended, declining to answer a reporter’s question. It fell to Chairman Neil Chatterjee to address multiple calls for McNamee’s recusal from the resilience dockets. Those calls have come from Senate Democrats, environmental groups, the Harvard Law School’s Electricity Law Initiative and several protesters at Thursday’s meeting — though the last group did not say from what he should recuse himself. (See Enviros Seek McNamee Recusal in Resilience Dockets.)
Chatterjee said, “All I know is, on his very first day at the commission, [McNamee] went and received ethics training and sat down with our legal counsel here at the commission to discuss these matters, as we all did on our first days at the commission.” He repeatedly emphasized that the decision to recuse lies with individual commissioners, and that the chairman has no say in the matter. “I don’t have the capacity to deny another commissioner their vote or their ability to participate in a proceeding. That is between Commissioner McNamee and ethics” staff.
“And I have complete confidence in the lawyers in this building to ensure on all these fronts that whatever actions we take will be with an eye toward ensuring the maximum ability to withstand legal scrutiny,” Chatterjee said.
But Chatterjee also noted that upon his own arrival at FERC, there were also questions concerning his ability to be impartial given his previous job as energy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), “and I probably wasn’t always helpful to dissuade those.” He said he felt that his record at FERC has proven he can make impartial decisions based on the record.
“So all I would ask is that he be given an opportunity to demonstrate that, like myself, [McNamee] will be an earnest public servant,” Chatterjee said. “And I think that based on my getting to know him and his remarks today, I truly feel he will be that earnest public servant.”
Chatterjee was referring to McNamee’s closing remarks at the meeting, after the commission had honored two retiring staff members.
McNamee said agency staff are “sometimes not given the due that they should be given. … Public service is a calling, and often people don’t respect it the way they should. You don’t get paid as much as you could in the private sector, but … you come each day to do what’s right for the country and give your best advice. And that’s something that’s very noble. Personally, I’m grateful for it, and I’m looking forward to working with all of you.”
Tension over LNG; No Update on McIntyre
Meanwhile, the partisan divide at the commission over natural gas facilities continued, as Chatterjee struck from the consent agenda a vote on Venture Global LNG’s application to build its Calcasieu Pass LNG export facility in southwestern Louisiana’s Cameron Parish (CP15-550).
In her opening remarks, Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur (D) said she was “disappointed we are not voting on the project today. Based on the record before us today, and my assessment of the legal requirements under the Natural Gas Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, I was prepared to cast a vote on the project. Without getting into internal deliberations, I think I made clear what I believe is required of us when considering whether to authorize this LNG project.”
Both LaFleur and fellow Democratic Commissioner Richard Glick have repeatedly disagreed with their Republican colleagues about the consideration of greenhouse gas emissions in gas infrastructure approvals. If the vote on Calcasieu Pass had been like previous votes, Chatterjee would have been outnumbered without McNamee and Commissioner Kevin McIntyre, who was again absent from the monthly meeting and has not voted on any items since stepping down from the chair in October because of what he called a “serious setback” in his battle with a brain tumor.
Chatterjee has previously poked fun at LaFleur at previous open meetings for her reversal on the issue, as she only recently began to vote against gas infrastructure over GHG concerns. (See FERC Says Farewell to Powelson.)
But speaking to reporters on Thursday, he was subtly critical of her.
“I appreciate my colleague’s concerns, but also, when she was chairman she had a reputation of being a strong supporter of LNG exports. The policy was fine then,” he said, before moving on.
Chatterjee declined to give an update on McIntyre’s status. The commissioners in their opening remarks wished him and his family well for the holidays. But unlike at earlier meetings, none of them offered hopes of him soon returning to work.