Hearing date set for top Interior, FERC, DOE nominees

Source: Phil Taylor, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday on the nominations of Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor to become deputy Interior secretary, former Colorado energy regulator Ron Binz to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and NASA Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson to be undersecretary at the Department of Energy.

Connor, who was nominated in late July by President Obama, is no stranger to the committee after serving several years as an aide to former Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) (E&E Daily, July 1).

The deputy secretary post is the second-highest at Interior, an agency of 70,000 employees that oversees energy development, recreation and wildlife protection on one-fifth of the nation’s landmass and much of its oceans.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell this summer praised Connor’s two decades of work on energy, conservation and water issues, particularly his support of sustainable water use in the arid West and his work brokering American Indian water rights settlements.

Connor, who was confirmed by voice vote in 2009 to lead Reclamation, is a noncontroversial pick for the post. His selection drew praise from both Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

That doesn’t guarantee he’ll have a smooth road to confirmation.

Former Deputy Secretary David Hayes in May 2009 had his nomination blocked by Murkowski and former Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) over concerns that the Obama administration had inappropriately canceled 77 oil and gas leases in Utah, amid other concerns over its energy policies.

Hayes about a week later was confirmed by unanimous consent.

Connor’s nomination comes as Jewell weighs whether to approve a controversial road through a wilderness portion of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to improve an Aleutian village’s access to medical facilities on the mainland of Alaska.

While the road is opposed strongly by environmentalists, Murkowski has made it a lodestar issue, threatening to block Jewell’s confirmation last March if former Secretary Ken Salazar did not agree to give the road a closer look.

Jewell visited the Izembek region in late August but said she has no timeline for issuing a decision on the road.

Connor’s confirmation also comes as the Bureau of Land Management seeks to finalize a rule to more tightly regulate hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on public lands. Republican senators from energy-rich states, including Murkowski, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Mike Lee of Utah, have opposed the regulation and may ask Connor to comment on the rulemaking.

Industry officials and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) have also recently raised concerns over the Park Service’s comments on the BLM rule, particularly its citing of an op-ed warning of the climate change impacts of fugitive methane emissions (Greenwire, Sept. 9).

Connor’s confirmation would pave the way for the White House to pick nominees for other high-ranking posts at Interior, including two assistant secretaries and director of BLM.