Conservatives spotlight FERC, nomination as key to Obama’s climate plans

Source: Katherine Ling, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, August 16, 2013

A conservative think tank has set its sights on elevating the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and its importance to President Obama’s Climate Action Plan ahead of a nomination hearing for its next chairman.

The Institute for Energy Research is boosting efforts to educate policymakers on and off Capitol Hill about what FERC does and how that could affect the U.S. energy supply and consumption in favor of renewables and to the detriment of fossil fuels, especially coal, an IER spokesman said.

“A lot of people don’t realize how important FERC is, period,” IER’s Benjamin Cole said in an interview. “The way FERC fits into a much larger plan on climate change, folks haven’t drawn all those connections yet, surprisingly.”

FERC regulates interstate transmission lines and fuel pipelines, liquefied natural gas import and export terminals, hydroelectric projects, and wholesale electricity markets. Obama in June nominated Ron Binz, a former chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, to replace Jon Wellinghoff as FERC chairman.

Cole said IER has prepared educational videos on FERC that will be available on YouTube and other social and digital media and will hold round-table discussions with stakeholders and lawmakers.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is likely to hold a nomination hearing for Binz after the August recess. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the panel, has said she will “carefully” consider Binz’s qualifications.

The Binz nomination has already caused some controversy because of his role in implementing Colorado’s contentious “Clean Air, Clean Jobs” legislation while chairing the Colorado PUC from 2007 to 2011, which has raised the ire of the coal industry and free market groups (Greenwire, July 1).

The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial last month accusing Binz of being a radical who will try to circumvent Congress to impose an anti-carbon and pro-renewables regime. A group of former FERC commissioners, however, defended Binz’s actions as “balanced” and within the law and mission of the commission in a letter to the editor (Greenwire, Aug. 9).

IER’s Cole said the editorial provided the right information but not enough context for people to understand why the nomination was important.

“Just putting FERC on the map and radar is kind of important for us, not because of who Ron Binz is but FERC’s increased authority over the last decade and strategic way it must, it must fit into Obama’s Climate Action Plan” along with U.S. EPA and the Interior Department, Cole said.

Cole said that while IER officials are keeping an eye on Binz’s nomination, they are not stepping into that fight yet.

The nomination fight has thrust FERC more into the political spotlight than usual, as it generally has a reputation as a wonky but nonpartisan and independent agency made up of five commissioners — in this case, three Democrats and two Republicans.

FERC did make a splash recently, fining JPMorgan Chase & Co. $410 million for gaming the energy markets in California and the Midwest — the largest settlement the commission has reached under the Federal Power Act (Greenwire, July 30).