Key Democrat expresses ‘serious concerns’ over FERC pick

Source: Hannah Northey and Manuel Quinones, E&E reporters • Posted: Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) yesterday expressed strong concerns about President Obama’s pick to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“I’ve got a problem. I’ve got serious problems,” Manchin told E&E Daily during a brief interview yesterday evening about the nominee, who has encountered strong opposition from the coal industry.

The West Virginia Democrat, one of the strongest pro-coal voices in the upper chamber of Congress, did not go as far as declaring himself against Ron Binz, a former Colorado utility regulator and a strong proponent of renewable energy.

“I’m always open to talking to people,” Manchin said. “But I have serious concerns, very much.”

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is set to hold a hearing on the Binz nomination in the coming weeks. While it is still early in the process, his prospects are far from certain. Republicans have 10 members on the committee and Democrats don’t have much leeway with 12. A tie would mean the nomination fails.

Beyond Manchin, observers are keen to find out how Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) will vote. The potential future chairwoman of the panel is a favorite among the fossil fuel industry, including coal companies.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the panel, who prides herself on giving administration nominees a fair shake, has also expressed concerns.

Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Murkowski, said a meeting between Binz and the senator is in the works, but he couldn’t comment on whether she would support him. “She’s pointed out that some of the past comments raise questions” but added that such information will be analyzed, Dillon said.

If confirmed by the Senate, Binz would have a five-year term and replace Democrat Jon Wellinghoff at the helm of the commission, which regulates the electric grid, gas pipelines, liquefied natural gas export terminals and hydroelectric projects.

Messaging continues off the Hill

Off Capitol Hill, interest in the confirmation hearing is being stoked by interest groups on both sides.

Opposition to Binz has mainly focused on his work while leading the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on the state’s contentious “Clean Air, Clean Jobs” legislation, an effort that prompted Xcel Energy Inc. to shutter coal plants in the Denver area on then-Gov. Bill Ritter’s (D) watch.

The Institute for Energy Research, a conservative think tank, is now boosting its efforts to educate policymakers about FERC’s role in the energy markets and how the agency could affect the use of renewables to the detriment of fossil fuels (E&ENews PM, Aug. 15).

More vocal attacks were published on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which recently accused Binz of being a radical who would try to circumvent Congress to impose an anti-carbon and pro-renewables regime.

A dozen former bipartisan FERC commissioners blasted the editorial in a letter to the newspaper, saying Binz would be a “fair and impartial judge” if he receives a nod of approval from the Senate (Greenwire, Aug. 9).

Colorado’s coal industry, Denver-based libertarian think tank Independence Institute and Washington, D.C., think tank American Tradition Institute have also jumped into the fray, accusing Binz of promoting the Obama administration’s “war on coal” (E&ENews PM, July 16).

Those attacks are being countered by messaging from the Green Tech Action Fund, a San Francisco group that advocates clean energy and that hired Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm VennSquared Communications to push for Binz’s confirmation.

Sarah Elliott, senior vice president of VennSquared, has said Binz was not aware that the group had hired the firm and was not involved in selecting VennSquared (E&E Daily, July 23).

Binz has also secured the support of a number of large utilities and Democrats, including Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who has vowed to work with his colleagues in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to ensure Binz’s confirmation (Greenwire, July 1).