Clements talks Texas crisis, climate and the ‘FERCarazzi’

Source: By Arianna Skibell, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, February 28, 2021

In the wake of last week’s Texas blackout crisis, newly seated Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Allison Clements said, “You can’t just fix one thing.”

In a wide-ranging interview with E&E News, the Democratic commissioner called for applying a “systems perspective” to thorny reliability issues, like those that left millions of people in the dark as southern U.S. temperatures plunged below freezing.

“No one should have had to suffer what people suffered in the last week and a half across a large swath of the country due to this system failure,” said Clements, a longtime energy lawyer who was nominated to the commission last summer by former President Trump and confirmed in December.

Clements also discussed her other priorities, including transmission reform, climate equity and environmental justice. She was recently tapped to lead the independent agency’s Office of Public Participation, a congressionally mandated office created last year to help landowners, communities and tribes engage with FERC and understand its technical work. FERC is charged with overseeing large-scale energy infrastructure and wholesale power markets, and the five-member panel, led by Democratic Chairman Richard Glick, is expected to play a major role in President Biden’s clean energy agenda.

“It’s an exciting time at the commission,” said Clements, who formerly headed the clean energy program at the Energy Foundation and worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council on FERC-related issues. “We have new leadership with Chairman Glick. We have a full commission of five people. It’s a nice time to reset.”

Two months into her tenure, Clements spoke to E&E News about her plans for the Office of Public Participation, the panel’s role in addressing climate change and the “FERCarazzi”:

The commission has announced a series of investigations into the Texas power crisis, but have there been any lessons you’ve already learned?

We haven’t seen the data and the analytics on, specifically, the sequence of events. But I’d say it was a reminder, unfortunately, that these kinds of weather events cause system failures. When we think about addressing these issues going forward and trying to take action quickly to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, you can’t just fix one thing. You have to look at the issue from a systems perspective and think about the planning issues and the reliability issues and the market design issues. And of course when it comes to Texas, the commission has jurisdiction over only one of those three things, the reliability piece.

How can FERC address climate change, and what are its limits, given that the agency is an independent regulator and not an environmental agency?

Climate change affects FERC. It’s a reality that infiltrates a good amount of the decisionmaking that FERC has under its authority. There is direct consideration of climate from the commission when it comes to doing a [National Environmental Policy Act] analysis for a pipeline certification, for example. There are implications for predictions about supply and demand and for how we measure reliability. So climate change implicates the commission in a lot of ways, but it’s not the commission’s charge to go out and solve climate change.

What is your vision for the Office of Public Participation?

While I don’t envision the office removing all of the contention that surrounds various types of commission proceedings, my vision is that it will play an important role in providing education about what the commission does and information about how individuals, communities, consumer groups, tribes and others who are interested are able to participate. And to the extent they participate, our decisionmaking process will be more informed and our outcomes will be better.

How will you reach those new voices you’re hoping to seek input from?

That effort is underway. Twitter is not sufficient, because the same people are paying attention to the energy Twitter feeds. So we are hoping to get the word out broadly, far and wide, that we are, first of all, going to be holding a workshop on April 16 to allow people to provide verbal input [on the public participation office], and then we’re going to have a comment period. We’re also working on putting together some listening tours that will provide a third type of opportunity for public input. But I would emphasize, this is the beginning of the conversation with the public.

Outside the Office of Public Participation, what are your top priorities as commissioner?

One is transmission reform. That is probably one of the hardest things the commission is going to have to address and one of the most important. A second priority is market reform. I’m enthusiastic that the chairman has announced a series of technical conferences on the issues and the capacity market in particular. I hope that these conferences involve consideration of specific mechanics and the nitty-gritty of how it all gets done. It’s time to figure out what we should do, next steps.

There have been criticisms that FERC’s process for permitting natural gas pipelines doesn’t adequately weigh landowner, community and tribal complaints. But there are calls from some of those critics for a similar process to be used to site transmission lines. Is that a double standard?

I’m surprised that isn’t something people ask more about. Any infrastructure development is a massive undertaking, often billions of dollars, and often implicating environmentally, culturally, ecologically sensitive areas. So in both cases, my perspective is that there has to be a determination that that infrastructure is in the public interest; that the benefits justify the costs; and that the siting is done in a careful, sensitive manner.

The Biden administration has signed a number of executive orders to address climate change and racial equity related to environmental issues. As an independent agency, FERC’s decision to comply with executive orders is voluntary. Is the commission discussing whether it will implement those orders?

You can see by the chairman’s decision to support the development of the Office of Public Participation, and also to hire a senior-level position that will be responsible for incorporating environmental justice concerns across the agency’s responsibilities, that he’s certainly committed. I share that commitment to ensuring that climate equity and justice becomes part of the way things are done at the commission. And I’m hopeful that government agencies that are not independent regulators will pick up and run with the requirements, as well as the aspirations, in those executive orders.

Half-serious question: Will the new Office of Public Participation provide details on how to navigate eLibrary, which is notoriously difficult to use?

Oh gosh, that’s funny. But those are actually the kinds of things that serve as blocks. Even when I was a stakeholder with a law degree focused on these issues advocating before the commission, once in a while, a procedural question would come up, and I’d think, “I’m not totally sure if this is the right way to do it, but I don’t have anyone to ask, and it’s due today.” So if the stakeholders already at the commission often have questions about the right way to do things, imagine what it is like if you’re someone who just found out there’s a compressor station getting built the next neighborhood over, and you’ve never been involved with FERC issues before.

How did you first find your way into the energy world? Did you always dream of being a federal energy regulator?

Well, I was certainly always interested in energy and environmental issues since high school. After law school, I came to see regulatory practice as a really interesting way to learn more about the energy sector. I think if you understand how the grid works, you have a really good starting point for all the issues that come up across the industry, and that is what first drew me to the work, and then I just kept doing it.

Have you developed any new hobbies or habits during the pandemic?

Nesting with my family. Homeschooling my two children. One thing that I’ve really enjoyed doing since we moved out to D.C. in August is taking care of my plants. It’s very comforting and relaxing to me.

Do you have a favorite FERC slogan or pun? Like, “The most influential agency you’ve never heard of”?

That’s a good one. I have to think about that for a second. There’s a lot of FERC pun slinging going on. Oh, there’s a name for you [reporters] that I like: the FERCarazzi. I don’t call you that; it’s just a name that floats around sometimes. I’ve never actually said that out loud before.

Do you want to add anything else?

It’s a genuine honor to have this role, and I have a really talented team that works with me. I haven’t had a boring moment yet.