Committee questions FERC picks on climate, blackouts

Source: By Jeremy Dillon, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 17, 2020

Commitments to grid reliability and energy neutrality helped two Federal Energy Regulatory Commission nominees skate though their Senate confirmation hearing yesterday.

Democratic pick Allison Clements and Republican pick Mark Christie avoided any major gaffes as the two pledged fuel neutrality and to ensure “just and reasonable” rates.

The nominees’ performance likely paves the way for them to clear the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a bipartisan basis.

But whether they can pass the Senate before the end of the year remains to be seen. A shrinking congressional calendar and election results may alter how the two parties want to approach FERC vacancies.

Asked about confirming Clements and Christie before the end of the year, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said, “I hope so.”

She said, “Obviously, we are focused on the [continuing resolution] coming up and then whatever comes up after that. We don’t know how long our clock is around here.”

For Clements, the hearing marked a nearly year-and-a-half-long odyssey. Democrats floated her for a spot on the commission in early 2019, but the White House did not nominate her until this summer.

Clements heads the clean energy market program at the Energy Foundation. She previously worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council on FERC-related issues in its Sustainable FERC Project.

Climate change

Clements spent much of the hearing distancing herself from NRDC’s climate focus and opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure by arguing that she left the group’s program in 2014.

She vowed to consider all information and dockets available to her, including pipeline certifications and liquefied natural gas terminal applications.

Still, she hinted that climate science and the impacts of global warming to grid reliability are integral to any commissioner’s decisionmaking process.

“When it comes to how climate science interacts with the commission’s authority, as you know, the commission is not a direct climate regulator, but one place where the science will be very important is thinking about the commission’s reliability responsibility under Section 215,” Clements said.

“It is incumbent upon the commission to ensure that system has the supply it needs to meet demand as well as the ongoing operating reliability of the system in light of the best predictions and the best analysis of what the future weather patterns, what future extreme events and natural disasters that the country might be facing going forward,” she added.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) pressed the two nominees about their thoughts on FERC’s role in instituting a carbon tax.

The question stems from some grid operators looking into baking a carbon fee into its market structures to help states meet ambitious climate goals.

Both nominees declined to answer because the issue is before the commission. Clements and Christie may need to act on it should they get confirmed.

FERC plans to hold a technical conference on the issue on Sept. 30, although action on the matter is not guaranteed.

Blackouts, state authority

Republican lawmakers in particular were keen on pressing the nominees on fuel neutrality — making sure they don’t favor one energy source over another.

Multiple senators pointed to the recent grid problems in California as alleged evidence of an overreliance on one source of generation.

The two nominees refused to place any blame on any single entity or generation decision for the blackouts. Clements and Christie said they would wait for studies underway by the state’s independent grid operator.

“One thing I’ve learned as a regulator is I want to get all the facts before coming up with an opinion,” Christie said, noting FERC’s oversight of the California Independent System Operator.

Christie would join FERC from the Virginia State Corporation Commission, where he has served for the past 16 years.

During the hearing, Christie repeatedly defended a state’s ability to determine its own energy generating mix.

But he also appeared to defend FERC intervening in the capacity market for the PJM Interconnection late last year to offset the influence of state subsidies in the secondary market.

“I’m a big believer in a state’s authority to pick their own resource mix and not to get in the way of that,” Christie said. “The question in a lot of these cases, and I’m not prejudging anything, is if the state is offloading costs of some of its policies onto the consumers in other states, then FERC has a role.”