New FERC chairman — ‘We need to take action’

Source: Rod Kuckro, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 1, 2018

Neil Chatterjee says there’s too much facing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

That’s why he is not waiting to lead until after the Senate, following the midterm elections, considers the nomination of a fifth commissioner to fill the vacancy at FERC and break possible 2-2 votes.

“There’s so much on the commission’s plate that we need to take action on,” the chairman said, and it can’t “wait for the unpredictable Senate confirmation process.”

Chatterjee, 41, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), made his remarks this morning during a wide-ranging session with more than a dozen reporters.

President Trump designated Chatterjee to lead FERC on Oct. 24, succeeding Kevin McIntyre, who relinquished the position for health reasons. He remains a commissioner (Energywire, Oct. 26).

Chatterjee first led FERC from Aug. 10 to Dec. 7, 2017, when McIntyre was sworn in.

Bernard McNamee, 51, was nominated by Trump in early October to fill the slot left vacant when Rob Powelson resigned.

McNamee has been executive director of the Energy Department’s Office of Policy since June. He is scheduled to appear at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for his confirmation hearing Nov. 15, coincidentally the same day as FERC’s regular monthly meeting.

There is no guarantee the full Senate would vote on McNamee during the lame-duck session. Action could roll into 2019.

The agency has a slew of major issues facing it above and beyond the routine and often mundane work that most often results in unanimous orders by the commissioners.

“My colleagues and I need to pull together and start tackling some of these issues,” Chatterjee said.

He cited the need to act on the commission’s inquiry into grid resilience, process applications for liquefied natural gas export facilities, strengthen cybersecurity defenses for the grid and pipelines, ensure the “right incentives” to allow for the next-generation grid to be built, and break down barriers to entry for new technologies in the power markets.

Also facing FERC is a reform of how it oversees the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act enacted in 1978 and whether to update its 1999 policy statement on how it reviews natural gas pipelines, he said.

An exception for quick action could be the possible revision of its policies for certifying pipelines that McIntyre in April announced through a “notice of inquiry.”

“Historically, policy statements have the most long-term sustained value when you have a full complement of commissioners that future commissions can look back on,” Chatterjee said.

He emphasized that he is not the same person who served as chairman in 2017, just days after leaving his political job in the Senate.

“The individual who is single most responsible for my growth in this position is Kevin McIntyre. He so emphasized the rule of law and adhering to our record. He could not be more strenuous in saying that politics could not be allowed to interfere with the work of the commission, and that has helped me grow from formerly partisan legislative aide to independent regulator. I have big, big shoes to fill,” he said.

The most high-profile issue facing FERC is its inquiry into grid resilience and the associated question of whether special value should be awarded to power plants with “fuel security” such as coal and nuclear units.

It was launched after FERC unanimously turned aside in January a request from Energy Secretary Rick Perry that the agency consider changing its rules in certain electricity markets to compensate coal and nuclear power plants that he argued are necessary for ensuring grid reliability.

“Initially I was sympathetic to Secretary Perry’s proposal,” Chatterjee said.

“But as I evolved into this role, I recognized that that is not part of our record. Doesn’t factor into statutes that govern us.”

Chatterjee pledged that the commission will act on resilience after weighing the hundreds of comments it received and that “whatever we do, it is going to be fact-based. This will not be a politically influenced decision.”

“My priority is to get it right,” he said.

Chatterjee also expressed his belief in the power markets overseen by FERC, which some players believe are dysfunctional and need fundamental reform.

“I am very pro-market. But I also believe fundamentally in states’ rights and the ability for states to make local decisions about their energy future. The reality is that these two constructs that I believe at my core are colliding right now.”

FERC needs to find a “balance” between preserving state rights but also ensuring that completion is fair, he said.

“If it were an easy question, we would have answered it already. It’s not,” he said.

Chatterjee would not discuss McIntyre’s health, an issue that prevented McIntyre from attending both the September and October FERC meetings.

“He is not just my colleague, he is my friend,” Chatterjee said.

“We have important work to do. Kevin wants me to be a strong leader for him and the agency he cares so deeply about,” and “I am committed to work with colleagues to live up to that expectation,” Chatterjee said.