May 19, 2017

Let’s Get FERC Back to Work

Heath Knakmuhs

Since February 3, 2017, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)--one of the essential pieces of our nation’s energy puzzle-- has been hobbled, and the time is now to get it back working again. On that day, Commissioner Norman Bay departed, leaving FERC unable to carry out many of its statutory duties.  With just two commissioners, FERC was left for the first time in its history without an operational quorum.

For the past four decades, the Commission has faithfully carried out its mandate to regulate the transmission and wholesale sale of electricity and natural gas in interstate commerce, the transportation of oil by pipeline, and the construction of natural gas pipelines, gas storage projects, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals.  FERC also licenses non-federal hydropower projects, which are a source of reliable, renewable energy. 

But much of this activity has now been frozen for over three months, with a fourth month of such stagnation a certainty.  This stagnation has placed one of the Trump Administration’s largest priorities—rebuilding our infrastructure-- in peril.  One of the largest areas of need is energy infrastructure, but without a quorum, FERC is left without the authority to permit new gas pipelines or license clean, renewable hydropower facilities.  FERC is also left helpless to act on claims of market manipulation or to adjudicate just and reasonable rates for electricity customers from coast-to-coast.  Instead, a hobbled FERC is forced to pile all such applications and petitions up in a corner, continuing to wait for an influx of new commissioners to again return FERC to operational levels.

There is hope on the horizon, however.  Last week, President Trump nominated Pennsylvania utilities commissioner Robert Powelson and a long-time energy advisor to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Neil Chatterjee, to fill two of the three open commissioner slots at FERC.  While their confirmation and addition to FERC would not bring the commission to its full five-member complement, it would reinstate a quorum and would again get FERC back to carrying out its statutory duties – many of which are directed toward ensuring America’s energy security.

Powelson currently serves as President of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, the association that represents the state public service commissions of all fifty states and Washington, D.C.  Chatterjee has been advising leader McConnell on energy issues since 2009. Both Powelson and Chatterjee have spent the better part of their adult lives working on domestic energy issues. That’s why they were also widely rumored to be on the Obama Administration’s short list for FERC spots. 

Nevertheless, partisan Democrats and environmental groups are vowing to fight these nominations.  One group of environmentalists even asserted earlier this week that the FERC nominations should be put on indefinite hold to ensure that the nominees are not somehow intertwined with FBI investigations relating to Russia.  This wild assertion is clearly divorced from reality. 

The efforts to thwart these nominations are not about these two individuals.  They are part of the larger “Keep it in the Ground” movement’s efforts to prevent additional energy infrastructure from being built.

Thankfully, cooler heads are running the show.  Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Lisa Murkowski, who is charged with leading the confirmation process for FERC nominees, has vowed to make the reestablishment of a quorum at FERC a top priority.  Chairman Murkowski recognizes the importance of putting FERC back to work. We implore the Democratic members of her committee, along with the members of the full Senate, to set aside partisanship in order to put American’s energy consumers and the nation’s energy security first.