Chatterjee used FERC gavel to bang the drum for coal

Source: Sam Mintz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 8, 2018

Former Federal Energy Regulatory Chairman Neil Chatterjee met with a utility company that stood to benefit from a controversial proposal he was pushing to boost coal and nuclear, while simultaneously launching a coal-centric media blitz, according to documents obtained by E&E News.

Chatterjee’s calendar shows the chairman meeting on Nov. 2 with FirstEnergy Corp., a utility heavily invested in coal-fired power and a major supporter of the DOE plan for subsidizing coal and nuclear power plants. It was his second sit-down with the company, with the first coming three days before DOE unveiled the directive.

“As you can see from the other calendar entries and from past statements, the Commissioner met with numerous groups regarding the Grid Reliability and Resiliency Pricing NOPR; this is one example of such meetings,” Chatterjee aide Lindsee Gentry said in an email.

Chatterjee — a former staffer for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — was replaced as FERC chairman on Dec. 7 by Kevin McIntyre, a longtime energy lawyer.

FERC rejected the grid plan last month, saying it didn’t prove the need to justify compensating certain types of generation (Energywire, Jan. 9).

Before McIntyre claimed the FERC gavel, Chatterjee had been actively promoting a plan to provide relief to coal and nuclear plants while the commission continued studying the issue.

Between Nov. 1 and 15, Chatterjee appeared at two forums sponsored by media organizations and also arranged interviews with six other media outlets, including a roundtable with E&E News reporters.

On Nov. 2, the day of the FirstEnergy meeting, he was scheduled to conduct a phone interview with a group of reporters from Kentucky.

Emails between FERC spokeswoman Mary O’Driscoll and Gentry show agency staffers emphasizing Chatterjee’s support of coal.

The invitation to reporters was titled “Kentucky Coal Country: Chat with Chatterjee” and quoted from an October Bloomberg Businessweek article emphasizing Chatterjee’s support for coal (“The Coal Fan With a Chance to Tip the Scales in Its Favor”).

In a follow-up email, Gentry sent Chatterjee a list of other articles to highlight in the invitation. All portray Chatterjee as a champion of coal. For example: “U.S. Energy Regulator Says Coal More Reliable Than Natural Gas” and “Top Electric Grid Regulator Will Make Keeping Coal Plants Online One Of His Main Goals.”

“Think your Bloomberg Government profile from 2015 could be a good add too for context,” Gentry added, linking to a story headlined “Meet the McConnell adviser determined to stop the Clean Power Plan.”

There’s no reply from Chatterjee in the emails provided under FOIA. The commissioner has repeatedly said FERC is “fuel-neutral” and vowed not to favor one fuel over another.

Gentry said in an email to E&E News that “many of these reporters may not have worked with FERC in the past or may not have been as familiar with the Commissioner’s work thus far at FERC so those articles provide background for them as they prepped for the call.”

Two weeks later, on Nov. 15, Chatterjee appeared at a Washington forum sponsored by Roll Call and also conducted three interviews with Reuters, Utility Dive and The Foster Report.

In Utility Dive, Chatterjee revealed details of the mechanics of his proposed plan to help save coal and nuclear plants. Specifically, he said he wanted FERC to issue a “show cause” order telling grid operators to change their rules to keep certain plants online.

The story later led to questions about whether he had purposely floated the idea in the media before running it by his fellow commissioners.

At a press conference on Nov. 16, Chatterjee invoked McConnell: “I studied for eight years under the master of getting these kinds of things done” (Greenwire, Nov. 16, 2017).

Jon Wellinghoff, an Obama appointee who served as FERC chairman between 2009 and 2013, said Chatterjee’s efforts to get out in front of press coverage of the DOE grid directive is not unusual.

“If there’s a major pending issue at FERC with a high degree of media interest, I think I’d come out in front of it and try to explain things, go out and provide as much information to the media as necessary,” he said. “Each individual commissioner and chair have the right and opportunity to go speak to the media as to their views on particular issues.”

Chatterjee’s style contrasts with that of McIntyre, who as chairman has spoken in public only when called in front of congressional committees or at monthly FERC meetings.

Since leaving the commission chair position, Chatterjee has taken a different public tack.

For one, he concurred with FERC’s unanimous decision to reject the DOE proposal and instead ask grid operators to report back on resilience in their regions — although he also said in a statement that he still wished his agency had taken immediate action to assist coal and nuclear plants.

It may have been that statement that spared him a stinging rebuke to other commissioners from coal executive Bob Murray, who said the other four FERC members “should be fired” (E&E News PM, Jan. 9).

And an interview last week at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, Chatterjee acknowledged his “culpability” in the “perception that people had that we were going to ignore the record and take action.”

Chatterjee said he was “initially sympathetic” to DOE’s proposal because of his experience on Capitol Hill and growing up in Kentucky.

But, he said, “despite my sympathies for the plight of coal communities, who are suffering from the aftermath of the rapid transformation in our generation mix — and I do think that we need to ensure that these communities are able to undergo that transformation with dignity — that wasn’t part of our record and wasn’t something that we focused our decision on.”