Appointee who led divisive DOE-FERC grid study to exit

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, February 23, 2018

Travis Fisher, a Trump political appointee at the center of a contentious Department of Energy study on coal and nuclear plant closures, is leaving DOE.

His departure comes a year after Energy Secretary Rick Perry picked him to lead a DOE-wide study on the role of environmental policies in recent power plant closures, an administration official said. Axios first reported the move.

Fisher’s destination is unknown. The administration official declined to comment on the timing or nature of his departure, but some say his exit was spurred by clashing ideologies inside the department.

An outspoken advocate of free-market principles, Fisher was thrust into the spotlight by the high-profile DOE study that eventually identified low demand for electricity and cheap natural gas as driving coal and nuclear plant closures with the rise of renewable energy sources and regulations as exacerbating the problem.

The report, which leaked in draft form to the press, also concluded that the current level of renewables does not pose a threat to the U.S. electric grid (Energywire, July 21, 2017).

Fisher’s role drew attention because he had worked as an economist for the free-market Institute for Energy Research since 2013, and as an economist at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for seven years before that.

DOE staff’s findings, however, stood in sharp contrast to Perry’s request for FERC to approve a policy for compensating power plant operators with on-site fuel supplies — namely, coal and nuclear users. FERC rejected the proposal.

Mike McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist who was part of President Trump’s DOE transition effort, said Fisher wasn’t on board with Perry’s proposal and was eventually marginalized by its backers in DOE.

“He’s been looking to leave DOE for a while,” McKenna said. “He’s smart. He can move fluidly around these issues, but I’m not sure what the next chapter entails.”

One person familiar with the situation who asked to remain anonymous said DOE officials were looking for something significant for Fisher to do after the DOE study and policy request were wrapped up, but couldn’t find the right mission.

At one point, he was considered for a role in DOE’s response to the Puerto Rico grid crisis in the wake of Hurricane Maria last summer, but that didn’t pan out, as Assistant Secretary Bruce Walker and other officials took on the mission, the source said.

IER President Tom Pyle, Fisher’s former boss, said his departure is a loss for the Trump administration.

While declining to speculate on reasons for Fisher’s departure, Pyle said the economist had never envisioned staying at the DOE for a long time and noted that his tenure there has been longer than the current department leadership, given Fisher’s time on the transition team.

But Pyle, who led the DOE transition, also acknowledged that the department’s request for policies to prop up struggling coal and nuclear plants doesn’t fit with his free-market philosophy.

“Some of the decisions made by the leadership at DOE are certainly head scratchers for those of us who promote free markets over government intervention, but we still understand there is give and take in the political process,” he said. “So maybe some of that played a role, but honestly, I think Travis just ready to do something different.”