Obama’s pick to lead agency vows to shelve his firm, sell investments

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The president’s nominee to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has vowed to shelve his consulting firm and shed investments in Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, a critical step in the wake of past ethics controversies.

Ron Binz, a pro-renewables champion and former Colorado utility regulator, pledged in a June 17 letter to stop consulting at a firm he has operated since 1995 and to sell up to $50,000 in shares of Berkshire Hathaway.

“Upon confirmation, my consulting firm will cease engaging in any business,” Binz told Charles Beamon, a designated ethics official with the Office of Government Ethics, in the letter. “During my appointment to the position of commissioner, the firm will remain dormant and will not advertise.”

Obama tapped Binz earlier this year to replace Democratic FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff for a five-year term. The agency regulates the electric grid, gas pipelines, liquefied natural gas export terminals and hydroelectric projects.

The nomination has stirred backlash from the coal industry and free-market groups, which have raised ethics questions about Binz in the past. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has said she will “carefully” consider his qualifications (Greenwire, July 1).

Former Republican state Sen. Andy McElhany filed an ethics complaint against Binz two years ago when he was serving as the Colorado Public Utilities Commission chairman, for traveling to a conference in Houston sponsored by Bentek Energy LLC.

Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission found that Binz had violated the state’s ethics rules because the trip wasn’t for “legitimate” state business, but that he hadn’t breached the public trust because he hadn’t personally gained from the trip to Houston, which cost $1,074.

Binz, who has won warm praise from state regulators and clean energy advocates, vowed in the recent letter to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.

Binz currently operates Public Policy Consulting in Denver, where he gives guidance to clients — the Energy Department, Dow Solar, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Conservation Colorado — on issues including climate, clean technology, integrated resource planning and “smart grid” technology.

He also provided consulting services for Colorado State University’s Research Foundation, Ceres in Boston, Dow Chemical Co.’s solar division, and Tendril Networks, a smart grid vendor out of Colorado, according to a report he filed with the Office of Government Ethics.

Binz told Beamon he would not “participate personally and substantially in any particular matter” involving former clients without permission for one year after being confirmed.

Binz also agreed to divest his interest in Berkshire Hathaway within 90 days of being confirmed.

The holding company owns MidAmerican Energy Co., which serves electric and gas customers mainly in Iowa, and PacifiCorp, a regulated utility that serves customers in Utah, Oregon, Wyoming, Washington, Idaho and California. The holding company also owns various gas pipeline companies, including Northern Natural Gas Co. and Kern River Gas Transmission Co.

He pledged to resign from his position with GRID Alternatives Colorado and the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, and vowed not to handle cases involving the groups for one year.

It’s not clear when Binz’s nomination will come before the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee.

Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) today told reporters that he has not yet met Binz but wouldn’t say whether a hearing would be held before the August break.

When asked whether he was aware of controversies surrounding Binz, Wyden said he had “read the press reports” but quickly pointed out the bipartisan cooperation on the committee and ability to overcome conflict.

“I mentioned today at the hearing that our committee has passed out 50 bills now, half of all the bills that have been sent to the floor,” Wyden said. “And on some of those measures, we saw resolutions of conflicts that have gone on for decades, and I’m very appreciative of Democrats and Republicans on that committee.”