Exclusive: Powelson says no ‘idle threat’ to step down early from FERC

Source: By Gavin Bade, Utility Dive • Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Robert Powelson has no regrets about his time serving on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — or his decision to step down a year and a half before his term is up.

“I’ve done a good decade of public service,” Powelson told Utility Dive on the sidelines of a meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners on Monday. “I leave with my reputation intact. I think in my short tenure in the FERC world, the employees at FERC respect me for the positions I’ve taken, some of them pretty courageous.”

Powelson announced this month that he would retire from FERC in mid-August to head the National Association of Water Companies, a water utility trade group. The news came as a surprise to many in the utility sector, as his term does not expire until 2020.

Powelson earned a reputation during his year-long tenure as a steadfast supporter of the wholesale power markets that FERC regulates and a persistent critic of the Trump administration’s efforts to override them with federal coal and nuclear subsidies.

Those positions likely mean that the former Pennsylvania state regulator would not have been reappointed by the president if he served out his entire term, but Powelson says that political calculus did not enter into the equation when considering his retirement.

“There was never a conversation about me leaving or being asked to leave. That is fake news entirely,” Powelson said. “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.”

“If that were the case, I would be more emboldened to stay,” he added.

Instead, Powelson said the chance to lead the nation’s water trade group — a sector that garnered his close attention as a state regulator — was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

“I wasn’t looking for it and wasn’t talking about it, but at the end of the day, I was just like, this is a no-brainer,” he said. “I had every intention to stay to 2020 at the commission … but I don’t want to look back in 2020 and say I had missed an opportunity.”

Powelson’s departure comes at a critical time for the commission, which is still grappling with high-profile proceedings on grid resilience and its first review of its pipeline approval policy since 1999. Though his retirement could leave the commission in a partisan deadlock, the regulator said he expects little disruption at FERC from his departure and is prepared to leave with his head held high.

“I leave the FERC with no conflict or dark clouds hanging over my head about ethical scandals that we see in the swamp these days,” he said. “I never got a $50 room offer. I paid for my train rides to D.C.”