FERC nominee to spark political showdown on Senate panel; other picks less controversial

Source: Hannah Northey, Phil Taylor and Nick Juliano, E&E reporters • Posted: Monday, September 16, 2013

The highly controversial and increasingly political confirmation of President Obama’s pick to lead the otherwise sleepy Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will take center stage this week before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The panel tomorrow will weigh the fate of Ron Binz, a Democrat and former chairman of Colorado’s utility board, a nominee who has sparked a fierce campaign battle among clean energy groups, foundations, libertarian think tanks and conservative organizations in Washington, D.C., and beyond.

The committee is also slated to take up the less controversial nominations of Elizabeth Robinson to become undersecretary for management and performance at the Department of Energy and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor to be deputy secretary of Interior. Later in the week, another Senate panel will take up the nomination of a key position at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Obama tapped Binz to replace outgoing FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, a driving force behind the administration’s efforts to green the electric grid who has promised to stay in his post until a replacement secures Senate confirmation.

For now, it is unclear whether Binz, whom conservative groups have worked hard to paint as a threat to the coal industry, will successfully maneuver the hearing.

If the panel’s 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans are evenly split on Binz, his nomination will fail.

The committee’s top Republican and a key Democrat have publicly expressed concerns about Binz, calling his success into question.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources panel, said last week that a meeting with Binz had failed to address her concerns but that she was reserving judgment until after the hearing. Murkowski also took issue with a series of emails that surfaced, which show that Binz, since being nominated, has received strategic help from well-connected Democratic lobbyists and a public relations firm with ties to clean energy groups (E&E Daily, Sept. 13).

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the strongest pro-coal voices in the upper chamber of Congress, has also said he has “serious problems” with Binz but hasn’t said whether he will formally oppose Obama’s pick (E&E Daily, Sept. 10).

Binz’s confirmation hearing has generated unprecedented attention for FERC, a powerful but little-known independent Washington, D.C.-based agency that oversees the electric grid and national pipeline infrastructure as well as hydroelectric projects. Most of the attention has focused on his implementation of Colorado’s contentious “Clean Air, Clean Jobs” legislation while chairing the Colorado Public Utilities Commission from 2007 to 2011.

The initiative was stiffly opposed by the Colorado Mining Association and Peabody Energy Corp. and prompted Xcel Energy Inc. to shutter coal plants in the Denver area.

Groups like the conservative Institute for Energy Research, which backs fossil fuels, has been drumming up opposition and launched an educational campaign about what FERC’s role is in overseeing the energy markets. The group last week released a list of 10 questions for Binz focused on whether he would push Obama’s climate agenda, circumvent Congress or attempt to “socialize” the cost of long-distance transmission lines to tap into remote pockets of solar and wind. The Independence Institute in Denver, which advocates for limited government, has also taken to criticizing Binz for his work in Colorado.

But clean energy groups, including the Green Tech Action Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, fought back by enlisting the muscle of the public relations firm VennSquared Communications. Green Tech Action Fund is a grantee of the Energy Foundation, which has received donations from billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, said Deb Greenspan, a spokeswoman for the fund.

VennSquared President Michael Meehan, who has close ties to Senate Democratic leaders, said during an interview last week that he was heartened to be able to ensure that good information about Binz was released, because nominees cannot speak to the press and some critics have decided to inaccurately paint Binz as anti-coal.

“In politics, if you don’t refute a charge, it’s generally believed to be true,” Meehan said.

Other clean energy groups and former FERC commissioners have also stepped forward to defend and back Binz. Advanced Energy Economy, a coalition of renewable energy and demand response groups and utilities, including Duke Energy Corp., that supports natural gas, demand response, solar and wind, sent a letter to Murkowski and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) last week backing Binz. Notably, former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D), who appointed Binz to head the state Public Utilities Commission, is a member of the group’s board.

Robert Keough, a spokesman for the group, said the industry is well aware of the “coal story” surrounding Binz but that there’s been a tremendous amount of success in Colorado, including a move to gas.

“We think it’s something that could and should be translated onto the federal level,” he said.

DOE, Interior nominees

The panel will also discuss the nomination of Connor to fill the position at the Interior Department vacated by David Hayes earlier this summer.

Connor, a New Mexico native who previously served several years as an aide to former Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), is seen as a noncontroversial pick for deputy secretary, a post that oversees the day-to-day work of the agency’s 70,000 employees.

Connor’s nomination earned praise in late July from Wyden and Murkowski and is not believed to have garnered any significant push-back on Capitol Hill.

That doesn’t mean he won’t face tough questioning tomorrow.

With decades of experience in federal natural resources policy, Connor will be a key adviser to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who is no stranger to federal policy but is serving her first stint in public service after a career in the private sector.

And with many connections in the Senate, Connor, like Hayes before him, may be a valuable asset in promoting the Obama administration’s energy and environmental policies on Capitol Hill.

Murkowski, for example, may ask Connor’s opinion on the federal government’s trust responsibility to American Indians and Alaska Natives as well as the significant role Interior plays in Alaska. Murkowski last month took Jewell on a tour of the Aleutian village of King Cove, where the senator is lobbying strongly for approval of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Murkowski may also quiz Connor on his experience with oil and gas issues.

Since 2009, Connor has been commissioner at the Bureau of Reclamation, where he led Interior’s efforts to gauge climate impacts and promote water efficiency, conservation and drought mitigation. Since his confirmation by Senate voice vote, Connor has helped secure a major water-sharing agreement with Mexico and negotiate and implement five Indian water rights settlements.

Wyden has praised Connor for his “fresh thinking and hard work” in resolving the needs of water users and wildlife in southern Oregon’s Klamath Basin. Connor was a key witness at a hearing Wyden held in June to discuss an agreement to improve water reliability and restore fish habitats in the 16,000-square-mile watershed.

Wyden may ask Connor for his current thoughts on the agreement as well as any number of resource issues of importance to Oregon, including Bureau of Land Management timber harvests and regulation of hydraulic fracturing.

Connor, who holds a law degree from the University of Colorado School of Law, previously served in Interior’s solicitor’s office in the 1990s, later directing the secretary’s Indian Water Rights Office. He also holds a degree in chemical engineering from New Mexico State University.

As for DOE, the committee will consider Robinson’s nomination to become undersecretary for management and performance, a new position established as part of Secretary Ernest Moniz’s broader plans to reorganize the department (Greenwire, July 19).

Robinson is the chief financial officer at NASA, a position she has held since 2009, which involves overseeing the space agency’s budget. Assuming she is confirmed in the DOE role, her responsibilities would include overseeing more than a half-dozen offices within the department, including those dealing with nuclear site cleanup, and a new National Laboratories Oversight Board.

 NNSA nominee

Also on Capitol Hill this week, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz for a key post at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Klotz was tapped by Obama to serve as DOE’s undersecretary for nuclear security and administrator for nuclear security of the NNSA.

The troubled NNSA may benefit from Klotz’s former technical and administrative leadership experience as the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command from 2009 to 2011 and throughout key units at the Air Force that worked on cyberspace and missiles. He also advised the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Klotz is currently a senior fellow for strategic studies and arms control at the Council on Foreign Relations and has been an independent consultant since 2011. Klotz also served the White House as director for nuclear policy and arms control on the National Security Council from 2001 to 2003 and spent time as the defense attaché at the Embassy of the United States in Moscow from 1999 to 2001. Klotz received a bachelor of science degree from the Air Force Academy and a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University.

NNSA is in charge of maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing, as well as supporting counterterrorism and nonproliferation activities and the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines. The agency has a troubled history of projects with busted deadlines and budgets, for which it consistently makes the Government Accountability Office’s “high risk” list and thus is a target for congressional criticism.

Schedule: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing is Tuesday, Sept. 17, at 9:30 a.m. in 366 Dirksen.

Witnesses: Ronald Binz, nominee to head FERC; Elizabeth Robinson, nominee to serve as undersecretary of Energy; and Michael Connor, nominee for deputy secretary of Interior.

Schedule: The Senate Armed Services Committee hearing is Thursday, Sept. 19, at 9:30 a.m. in Dirksen G50.

Witness: Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, nominee to serve as DOE’s undersecretary for nuclear security and administrator for nuclear security of NNSA.