FERC’s new Republican on CO2 price, batteries and ‘Spinal Tap’

Source: By Arianna Skibell, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, February 7, 2021

Whether the federal government can greenlight or even require a price on carbon in the nation’s sprawling power markets will be a central question as President Biden’s climate agenda takes shape.

Mark Christie, the newest Republican member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, hasn’t made up his mind on carbon pricing. That’s because the seasoned Virginia energy regulator, former Marine Corps officer and lawyer says he has yet to argue a case on the matter.

“Any state in America that wants to impose a carbon tax can do it now; that doesn’t require FERC permission. But the question is legal authority and what authority FERC has,” Christie told E&E News during an interview this week. “I haven’t come to a personal conclusion on that because I haven’t had to in a case. But clearly the big issue is what is FERC’s authority to either allow it or mandate it.”

The independent commission could play a critical role in Biden’s agenda as the administration moves to decarbonize the grid and meet aggressive climate goals. For its part, FERC hosted a marathon technical conference to weigh carbon pricing last October, and several regional grid operators are drafting proposals.

But Christie said his main objective as a federal regulator is to ensure reliable electricity at affordable costs. “We have a lot of Americans that are struggling, and we have to be very concerned about what they’re going to pay,” he said.

Christie wrapped up a 17-year tenure as one of Virginia’s top regulators before President Trump nominated and the Senate confirmed him to FERC in 2020. Christie joined the panel early this year alongside newly confirmed Democratic Commissioner Allison Clements, returning the agency to its full complement of five commissioners. FERC is charged with overseeing large-scale natural gas projects and regulating wholesale power markets.

While serving on Virginia’s State Corporation Commission, where state lawmakers elected him three times on a bipartisan basis, Christie gained a reputation for adhering to a narrow judicial interpretation and for his outspokenness.

Albert Pollard, a former Democratic Virginia state lawmaker and friend of Christie’s, has described him as “intellectually honest” and “no shrinking violet” (Energywire, Aug. 4, 2020).

Asked to comment on that characterization, Christie quipped: “I think it’s fair to say that Albert, who I know very well, is no shrinking violet, so I guess that makes him an expert witness.”

Christie also spent over 20 years in academia, teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia School of Law. The West Virginia native is the former president of the Organization of PJM States Inc. and president of the Mid-Atlantic Conference of Regulatory Utilities Commissioners. He graduated from Wake Forest University with a degree in history and English before earning his law degree from Georgetown University.

Christie spoke to E&E News about his approach to state policy, energy technology, and his love of “This Is Spinal Tap,” a 1984 mockumentary film about a fictional English heavy metal band:

How does an independent regulator remain so in a highly politicized society, especially when it comes to energy policy and climate change?

For over 10 years, I would teach the new commissioner trainings through [the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners]. One of the things I always told them in the training [was] the most important survival skill you need is to understand where your commission fits in the political culture of your state, because every state has a different political culture.

One of the attributes of Virginia is that our State Corporation Commission is independent by constitution and by Virginia’s political culture. FERC is independent, as well. The way you’re independent as a regulator is you live it. You insist on independence and insist on defending your independence.

How will your work at the corporation commission translate to your new role at FERC?

We had to follow the law in Virginia, and we certainly did. Second is follow the facts. We have to base decisions on facts. And we certainly did in Virginia, and I fully expect to here. But [we would] also be very concerned about what the impact of our decisions cost people. We set retail rates at the state level, and real people had to pay those. I certainly want to bring that to FERC. While FERC regulates wholesale rates and transactions, what FERC does affects retail. We always have to be sensitive to that. And that’s the most important thing that I’ll bring.

What do you see as the federal government’s role when it comes to states’ public policy priorities?

I agree with Justice [Louis] Brandeis that states are the laboratories of democracy, and I really believe that. I think at the federal level, we need to respect that. Of course, if federal law preempts states, then we have to follow federal law. But in terms of the relationship, I start from the standpoint that state officials deserve a lot of respect in terms of their individual knowledge of their individual states.

Many states have said FERC’s market rules limit them in deciding their own resource mix. Do those rules need to change to accommodate states’ policy priorities?

I would like to see the issue of the interaction of state public policies and capacity markets teed up for discussion in a general-type proceeding where all interested parties can be involved and give their views. It’s a complicated issue. You’ve got competing values, competing interests, and I think that’s why it would be useful to have that considered in a general proceeding.

What do you think has been the biggest or most noteworthy development in the energy space in the last decade?

Technology. We’ve had progress on battery storage, which has the potential to really be transformative. We’ve had progress on renewable technologies such as solar, with falling prices and rising capacity factors. The natural gas fracking technology has been revolutionary in terms of its impact on economics. And the tremendous drop in gas prices has had a big impact on the [regional transmission organization] markets.

To compare, look at the telephone. When I was teaching regulatory law at the University of Virginia, every class, the first day of class, I would ask my students, “How many of you all have a landline?” When I started teaching, about half the hands would go up. When I finished teaching, I got the question, “What’s a landline?” So that shows you how technology has changed.

What are the most pressing issues facing the commission in the coming years? Do you think a build-out of the transmission grid is on that list?

As you can imagine, I’m not going to talk about pending cases and try not to telegraph, no pun intended, too much about an individual issue that may well be in front of us. But I think the biggest challenges are really these: One is to ensure reliability. American consumers expect electric power to be on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Anything less than that is just not meeting the reliability expectations of American consumers. Job No. 2, for me, and I’ll just speak for myself — I think we have to protect consumers. The consumer should not pay more than absolutely necessary. My third priority is that we do have environmental responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act, and we have to, of course, carry those out.

You’ve been a teacher and a state regulator for close to two decades. Is that what you thought you’d end up doing? What did you want to be growing up?

I have to admit, I was a lawyer from birth. It was in my DNA. And I think my first question was a cross-examination question of my mother. For better or worse, and many people would say worse, I was born a lawyer. In fact, somebody told me one time, a guy I worked with, he said, “You give a ring of truth to every lawyer joke ever told.” I said, “Is that a compliment?” He said, “Take it as you will.” And I guess I will.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Well, you had a quote from Will Reisinger [in a previous article]. He’s an attorney who has appeared in front of me quite a bit, and he said [about me], “He’s always making funny comments about movies and novels that no one has ever heard of.”

I would just say, I think people have heard of those movies, like “Casablanca,” or “This Is Spinal Tap” or “Waiting for Godot.” Will Reisinger is a very good attorney. He might not have heard of them, but I think other people have.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.