Prominent players in the fossil fuel industry are involved in the ongoing nomination process for the open seats on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), recent congressional disclosures show. 

With the pending departure of Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur in August, FERC – which permits interstate gas pipelines and LNG facilities and regulates electricity markets – will be left with only three commissioners. Though it will still have a quorum for considering projects and issuing orders, a bare-bones FERC has raised “anxiety” levels among energy companies, as billions of dollars in energy investments hang in the balance.  

A changed FERC might also impact the looming decisions on mid-Atlantic’s grid operator PJM Interconnection’s capacity market proposals. Though FERC this week delayed PJM’s August auction, a shifting political imbalance on the commission concerns clean energy advocates who are afraid PJM’s proposals to disadvantage state-incentivized renewable resources in the capacity market may become a central part of a new tariff.

Federal lobbying disclosures reviewed by the Energy and Policy Institute indicate that the fossil fuel industry is not sitting idly by. 

Houston-based Calpine, one of the nation’s largest power generating companies, has been lobbying for FERC nominations since mid last year. It is joined by the utility Exelon, which has been lobbying for its own nominees in the past several months. LNG and pipeline company Tellurian has also been involved in the first half of this year in the effort to shape FERC’s composition.

Fossil fuel and utilities-backed industry trade groups have taken an active role as well. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) – whose members include include such fossil fuel powerhouses as ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips,Koch Industries, Phillips 66, Southern Company, Continental Resources, Marathon Petroleum, Dominion, Energy Transfer, and Devon Energy – has been lobbying the White House on FERC nominations since late last year.

The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), which includes the likes of Enbridge, Dominion, ConEdison, Cheniere, Kinder Morgan, National Grid, and PG&E, has similarly lobbied for the commission’s appointments. 

Additionally, disclosures show that the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the nuclear industry’s lobbying arm, and Chicago-based power producer Invenergy, which has a mixed portfolio of gas and renewable energy, had each lobbied for FERC nominations late last year.

Recent reports indicate that other major players are stirring the pot behind the scenes. 

As E&E News revealed, coal executive Bob Murray is putting pressure on President Trump to, in his words, “fix feckless FERC.” In an interview following a fundraiser he held for the president, the Murray Energy CEO told E&E that he argued to Trump that FERC has failed to press states to buy coal power and that while Trump didn’t respond, Murray was confident Trump was listening and, “Anything that gets to him, he gets it quick and he deals with it.”

Murray has an open score to settle with FERC, which in a 5-0 vote denied a proposal to bail out struggling coal plants in January 2018. But three of those voting commissioners are no longer at FERC: Kevin McIntyre, Robert Powelson, and soon Cherly LaFleur. 

Trump has since appointed Bernard McNamee to fill one of the positions. McNamee’s nomination drew significant opposition in the U.S. Senate due in part to his earlier work for the Trump administration on DOE’s failed proposal to bail out uncompetitive coal and nuclear power plants at consumers’ expense, and his clear history of bias against renewable energy. The Senate approved his nomination in December 2018 on a 50-49 vote. 

And while Commissioner Chatterjee voted against the DOE bailout proposal, Greentech Media noted that his written statement concurring with the rejection of DOE’s proposal detailed his concerns with “bulk power system resilience” and that he called for a process to learn if “interim measures may be needed.” In fact, Politico recently reported that Chatterjee “will aim to resolve a longstanding impasse over state energy subsidies in the PJM power market; increase payments for coal, nuclear and oil power plants using so-called ‘fuel security’ reforms.” Chatterjee also reportedly played a role in preventing the nomination of Republican David Hill, NRG Energy’s general counsel, to join FERC earlier this year. Hill was vocal against plant bailout plans.

One of the next commissioners to replace LaFleur and to fill the current vacancy could be the deciding vote in any tariffs that benefit Murray Energy and other coal companies.
It’s not clear the degree to which Trump is personally monitoring the decision, if at all. Ari Peskoe, Director of the Electricity Law Initiative at the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program and a close watcher of FERC, wrote on Twitter that he received a note from an investment analyst suggesting that Trump was “personally interviewing” potential candidates.

Featured Image: “FERC Commission meeting” by is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Posted by Itai Vardi