FERC nomination hearing to zero in on Trump plans for nuclear, coal

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Senators this week will vet President Trump’s nominee to join the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — a confirmation hearing that’s bound to bring tough questions about the White House’s preferential push for coal and nuclear plants.

Bernard McNamee, a Department of Energy official whom Trump tapped to sit on FERC, will appear before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday.

Also scheduled to appear are Rita Baranwal, chosen to lead DOE’s nuclear office, and Raymond David Vela to lead the National Park Service.

McNamee’s past policy work and his thoughts on FERC’s independence will likely dominate Thursday’s long-anticipated hearing.

Trump nominated McNamee in October. If confirmed, he would serve through the summer of 2020 and restore a Republican majority to the panel.

Consumer advocates and environmental groups are vowing to fight his confirmation and have cast the former energy lawyer as an industry proponent.

Groups like Earthjustice and the Sierra Club cast McNamee as a political pick who, if confirmed, would be at the forefront of efforts to bolster struggling coal plants and nuclear reactors while sitting on the independent commission (E&E Daily, Oct. 5).

Their proof: McNamee, as executive director of the DOE’s Office of Policy, signed a Sept. 29, 2017, letter asking FERC to consider a rulemaking that would change electricity market rules to provide troubled plants a guaranteed cost-recovery mechanism. The commission ultimately rejected the request.

The Senate committee’s Republican chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has acknowledged to reporters she plans on asking McNamee about his views on the DOE proposal and said she wouldn’t support tipping the scales to favor one source of power over another.

“I am more in the camp that says we don’t want to be the one that dictates that, mandates what those specific solutions are,” Murkowski said last month when asked about McNamee.

But McNamee will likely secure easy support from lawmakers like Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin from coal-reliant West Virginia.

And even Murkowski has made it a top priority to ensure the five-member commission is full, and McNamee would fill a fifth vacancy.

FERC currently has four commissioners, two Republicans in Chairman Neil Chatterjee and Commissioner Kevin McIntyre, and two Democrats in Cheryl LaFleur and Richard Glick.

Some in the industry have backed McNamee as an experienced energy lawyer who would favor more infrastructure.

And yet McNamee, if confirmed, would be the most overtly political person to serve on FERC since Joe Kelliher joined the commission in 2003 after working at DOE for Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (Energywire, Oct. 4).

Before joining DOE, McNamee, 51, was with the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation for four months, where he penned an op-ed on Earth Day to emphasize the need for fossil fuels.

Prior to that, he served at DOE from May 2017 to February 2018 as a political appointee in the general counsel’s office.

Before coming to DOE, McNamee had been chief of staff for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) and a senior adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

McNamee’s name — from when he was serving as Paxton’s chief of staff — is included on a request for a stay of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which the Supreme Court ultimately granted.

McNamee also served twice under Republican attorneys general in Virginia in the early 2000s and was the policy director for George Allen’s (R) successful Senate bid in 2000.

The nominee has a long history of political donations to Republican candidates and political action committees.

Notably, McNamee’s confirmation hearing will occur just as FERC’s new chairman, Chatterjee, gavels in at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a monthly meeting.

Nuclear pick

Less controversial is Trump’s pick of Baranwal to serve as DOE’s assistant secretary of nuclear energy.

Baranwal is currently director of the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear initiative at Idaho National Laboratory, a program that provides industry with financial and technical support on advanced reactor designs (E&E News PM, Oct. 3).

Before joining DOE, she worked at Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC for more than eight years, most recently serving as director of technology development.

She also was a manager in materials technology at Bechtel Bettis Inc., where she led research on materials for U.S. naval reactors.

Baranwal holds a doctorate in materials engineering from the University of Michigan.

The Trump administration in its fiscal 2019 budget proposal floated cutting funding for DOE’s nuclear office by about 25 percent. Congress increased funding for the office in a package passed last month.

Reporter Rod Kuckro contributed.