As Powelson steps down, greens call for FERC seat to stay vacant

Source: By Gavin Bade, Utility Dive • Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2018

  • Environmental and anti-pipeline groups on Thursday called for the U.S. Senate to leave a seat on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission vacant as Commissioner Robert Powelson steps down at the end of the week, evening the partisan balance at FERC.
  • Powelson’s departure Friday will allow Democrats to deadlock commission votes 2-2 until the Senate confirms a new nominee from the White House to fill the seat. Democrats have voted against many of the pipeline projects the groups oppose, and the organizations want FERC to change how it considers climate change and other landowner impacts in project approvals.
  • FERC faces a number of major decisions on grid resilience, PJM’s capacity market and its pipeline policy review before the end of the year. This week, Politico reported that the White House is set to nominate Department of Energy policy head Bruce McNamee for the vacant seat, who would likely support the Trump administration’s push to speed project approvals and save coal and nuclear plants from retirement.

Powelson’s departure from FERC comes during a busy summer for the commission and throws a number of critical proceedings into question.

In June, FERC declared PJM’s capacity market rules unjust and unreasonable, necessitating a quick fix this year before its next auction in the spring. The regulators are also in the middle of the first review of their pipeline approval policy since 1999 and a high-profile proceeding on grid resilience forced into the spotlight by concerns that the Trump administration will nationalize some coal and nuclear plants.

Environmental groups from around the nation zeroed in on the pipeline issue in a letter to senators on Thursday, saying lawmakers should use the time to call hearings into how FERC considers climate impacts of new pipelines.

“Commissioners Powelson, Chatterjee, and McIntyre recently announced that FERC will not consider the climate impacts of the pipeline projects they review,” the letter reads. “There is no reason to think that any Trump Republican appointee will think or act differently.”

The letter references a May decision when FERC voted 3-2 to consider only the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a specific project, rather than a broader approach it had taken to consider impacts on natural gas production and consumption since a D.C. Circuit Court decision last year.

That issue is at the center of FERC’s ongoing pipeline policy review, along with how the agency reviews the market need for pipelines. Last month, Chairman Kevin McIntyre said FERC is unlikely to finish the review before Powelson steps down, but could complete it before the end of the year.

Powelson will depart FERC to head the trade group for private U.S. water companies. During his tenure, the former Pennsylvania state regulator was an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s proposal to save coal and nuclear plants, which FERC unanimously rejected in January.

Powelson’s outspoken nature led to speculation in Washington that political pressures may have pushed him to step down before the end of his term in June 2020, but the outgoing regulator told Utility Dive no one tried to push him out of the agency.

“There was never a time when someone was calling me or forecasting ahead to 2020 that your reappointment would be in jeopardy. No one ever put that idle threat over me,” he said.