Former GOP energy regulator regrets partisan past

Source: By Rachel Frazin, The Hill • Posted: Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Former GOP energy regulator regrets partisan past

A former Republican energy regulator who sparred with then-President Trump said he now regrets how partisan he was during the start of his tenure on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Neil Chatterjee, who left FERC last month, pointed to proceedings surrounding a 2017 push to bolster coal and nuclear plants as an example of the partisan rancor.

Chatterjee said in an interview with The Hill that when he was still transitioning “from partisan legislative aide to independent regulator, I introduced an element of politics into that proceeding and to the agency.”

“Having grown into the role and learning the importance of FERC’s independence and statutory directives, I really regret the way I comported myself in those early months,” he added.

In 2017, Trump nominated Chatterjee — who at the time was an energy policy adviser to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — to the commission, which has jurisdiction over interstate electricity transmission and natural gas infrastructure like pipelines.

Chatterjee’s term expired earlier this summer, but he continued to serve on the commission through a grace period before taking a job with the law and lobbying firm Hogan Lovells at the end of August. He is now required to wait 12 months before he can start lobbying FERC.

“I’ll have a one-year cooling-off period from the agency, per the ethics guidelines, but after that I’d be willing to engage with the agency,” Chatterjee said.

He noted that he’s “not certain at this point” whether he’ll register as a lobbyist.

Biden has yet to name a successor to Chatterjee on the commission, despite his departure being known from the start since members serve five-year terms. The five-member panel can have no more than three commissioners aligned with one political party, but for now it will continue to have just two Democrats and two Republicans until the Senate acts on Biden’s eventual nominee.

Chatterjee was FERC chairman from August 2017 to December 2017 and again from October 2018 until November 2020.

Trump demoted Chatterjee in 2020, naming Republican James Danly as head of the commission for the final months of his presidency.

The former commissioner said he was never given an explanation for the demotion.

He said he suspected it might have stemmed from his support for a carbon price, his opposition to a White House memo seeking to limit diversity training and moving to bolster smaller distributed energy technologies.

“I have my guesses as to what it was. Probably tied to the fact that I had acted on carbon pricing, that I had acted on removing barriers to aggregated distributed energy resources, that I had pushed back on the administrative executive order banning diversity training,” he said.

But since FERC is an independent agency, Chatterjee was not jettisoned from the commission and instead took on the role of commissioner instead of chairman.

“That’s the beauty of being at an independent commission. I still got to stay on the commission. I stayed on the commission for 10 months and got a lot of things done,” Chatterjee said.

A number of Republican-leaning advocacy groups support a carbon price, as do others like the American Petroleum Institute and some major oil companies. However, those positions have been called into question after an ExxonMobil lobbyist said the company’s support for a carbon tax was nothing more than a “talking point” since it’s unlikely to pass Congress.

Several Democratic lawmakers have thrown their support behind carbon pricing, but few Republican lawmakers have followed suit.

Post-FERC, Chatterjee is doubling down on his support for putting a fee on carbon emissions, announcing last month that he’ll be joining two groups that promote carbon fees.

But despite his support for an approach that could give clean energy a competitive advantage, he’s also supported moves that could hamper the industry.

He supported what’s known as the Minimum Offer Price Rule, which was issued in 2019. The rule was expected to hurt power sources that get state subsidies, which renewables might receive, in a wholesale capacity market impacting 13 states.

Chatterjee argues that his support for a carbon price gels with his opposition to subsidies because he considers subsidies inefficient.

The best way to balance market efficiency with state decarbonization goals, Chatterjee said, is “a carbon price in combination with mechanisms that push back against these distortive subsidies.”

In terms of policy, Chatterjee said that during his tenure, he was proudest of decisions that he billed as modernization efforts. He cited the commission’s work on battery storage and aggregated distributed energy resources, updating the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act and revising the evaluation process for liquified natural gas and pipeline facilities.

“We really did a number of things to fundamentally modernize the energy regulatory landscape that I think will be relevant for decades to come,” he said.

But he said that most of all, he was proudest of the FERC’s response to the pandemic, citing a Partnership for Public Service ranking that gave it high marks on COVID-19 response compared to other midsize federal agencies.

“Keeping the staff safe while keeping the agency running at an extraordinarily efficient and high level is really something that I’m very proud of,” Chatterjee said.