FERC’s murky leadership future could derail U.S. climate goals

Source: By Politico • Posted: Monday, September 19, 2022

Chair Richard Glick has spent the past two years pushing the adoption of policies he advocated as a minority voice on the commission.

FERC Chair Richard Glick on Capitol Hill July 27, 2021.

Who leads the commission and whether it can maintain a Democratic majority is critical to its ability to help achieve the greenhouse gas emissions reduction potential of the Inflation Reduction Act’s $369 billion in climate incentives. FERC is currently engaged in efforts to overhaul the U.S transmission system and ramp up U.S. renewable energy production to a level that could make it a reliable contributor to President Joe Biden’s goal of having a zero-carbon electric grid by 2035.

Glick “has understood and had a vision that is consistent with the recent congressional legislation [on] where the country is going,” said Suedeen Kelly, a former FERC commissioner and partner at law firm Jenner and Block.

“I fervently believe that the Senate will confirm him,” she said. “He’s really done an excellent job in dealing with issues that are really important to the industries that FERC regulates. So I think his service will be recognized.”

Biden nominated Glick to remain on the commission in May, but so far Manchin’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee hasn’t scheduled a confirmation hearing. Another term for Glick would give him more time for his long to-do list as head of the agency, which includes a slate of electric transmission reforms, lowering barriers to the growth of clean energy resources, and expanding the environmental review process for new pipelines and liquefied natural gas terminals.

That controversial decision on natural gas infrastructure made Glick a target of Manchin’s ire, particularly after the commission floated a new pipeline policy that included an additional greenhouse gas review in February. But in a recent comment to E&E News Manchin indicated he is warming toward the FERC chair, saying Glick has been making some “better decisions.”

A spokesperson for Manchin’s office said there is no update on when Glick might be brought in front of the ENR committee.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear how FERC will proceed on pipelines. After blowback on the initial pipeline policy, which proposed setting an emissions threshold for natural gas infrastructure that would trigger an additional environmental review, the commission quickly withdrew the policy to reconsider it.

Kelly previously speculated the commission might wait until a permitting deal in Congress is finalized to put forward anything new on pipelines. FERC declined to comment on timing of its pipeline policies or Glick’s reconfirmation.

Clean energy and transmission experts fear losing the chairman at a time when the commission’s responsibilities on ushering in more renewable resources after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act will slow the country’s progress in moving toward a cleaner power grid.

“The policies that are included in the Inflation Reduction Act can only get us where we’re trying to go on climate if we’re able to make progress on critical issues that FERC is taking on right now under Chairman Glick,” especially on transmission, said Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy.

And elections this fall inject a potential “whole new … obstacle” into the process if Republicans take the Senate, said Larry Gasteiger, executive director of transmission trade group WIRES. If Glick isn’t reconfirmed, the Senate will need to tap a new chairman next year, but finding consensus among President Biden and a Republican majority on who should lead the agency could prove tricky.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) would likely chair the ENR committee, as he is now ranking member, if Republicans are in the majority, and decide whether to confirm a new potential Biden nominee. He has been one of Glick and Democratic Commissioner Allison Clements’ fiercest critics in the Senate, and last week wrote the commission a scathing letter indicating that, unlike Manchin, he does not think Glick has been making better decisions.

In an email, a Barrasso spokesperson said the senator has “significant differences with FERC under the leadership of Chairman Glick,” arguing that consideration of pipeline projects has slowed during his tenure.

In his letter, Barrasso wrote that the commission appears to be applying “the same counterproductive policies” found in FERC’s policy statements on natural gas infrastructure earlier this year, referring to Democratic commissioners’ consideration of downstream greenhouse gas emissions as part of their environmental analysis.

Those analyses generally found the projects’ emissions would not be significant enough to contribute to climate change, and therefore should not warrant additional review. But Barrasso and other Republican senators as well as GOP FERC commissioners have repeatedly questioned whether the agency has the authority to consider downstream emissions.

Natural gas and pipeline trade groups declined to comment on Glick’s potential reconfirmation.

Aside from pipelines, FERC could help usher in a new wave of renewable resources through its efforts on transmission. Thus far, the commission has issued two proposed rules. One would require long-term system planning, while also putting utilities largely back at the helm of power line development, in an effort to speed up the process. The second aims to relieve the growing backlog of renewable energy projects unable to connect to the grid because of transmission constraints across the country.

Power sector experts say consistent FERC leadership is essential to ushering in these policies.

“As we continue the clean energy transition, it is more important than ever to have a steady and experienced leader guide the evaluation of key regulatory policies that impact the electric power industry and our customers,” said Phil Moeller, a former FERC commissioner who is now executive vice president of regulatory affairs at utility trade group Edison Electric Institute, in an email. “To be successful, we need to continue working together on a number of key issues, including the development of the transmission infrastructure we need to enhance energy grid resilience and to deliver more clean energy to customers.”

Glick also has support from Maryland’s top utility regulator, Jason Stanek, who co-chairs FERC’s first ever state-federal task force on transmission. Glick’s reconfirmation “will set the tone for our forward progress toward effective federal-state solutions,” he said in an email.

In the best case scenario, FERC could finalize the first rule by the end of the year, according to Gasteiger. But Glick has said the commission is likely to put forward other rulemakings to address outstanding questions, including who will pay for large transmission lines and system upgrades.

A four-person commission split along party lines may make finalizing all of those policies more complicated, according to stakeholders across the FERC spectrum, including those who have disagreed with Glick.

“There’s a lot of material to go through and some of these issues have become incredibly contentious. All of that against a background of a commission that has … been more political and more partisan than it was several years ago … doesn’t make coming to resolution and compromise any easier,” Gasteiger said.