On eve of Senate panel vote, commissioner frets over agency’s politicization

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) decision to get involved in choosing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s next chairman is creating “dysfunction” at the agency and threatening its ability to function properly, a member of the commission said yesterday.

John Norris, a Democratic member of FERC, during an interview yesterday expressed concerns that the commission, an arcane yet powerful agency that oversees the U.S. electric grid and natural gas infrastructure and pipelines, is being subjected to too much political pressure.

“It’s concerning that an independent agency responsible for regulatory decisions has become so overly politicized,” Norris said.

Norris, who spent more than three decades running high-profile political campaigns in his home state of Iowa, blasted Reid last year for blocking his own bid to be nominated to the post of FERC chairman. Norris said the Senate majority leader accused him of being too “pro-coal” — an accusation he denies — which led to President Obama’s failed nomination of former Colorado regulator Ron Binz to be FERC chairman last year (E&E Daily, Sept. 17, 2013).

FERC will once again fall under the spotlight today on Capitol Hill as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee casts its vote on Norman Bay as the next FERC chairman and acting Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur for another five-year term as a commissioner. They are both Democrats.

Senators on the panel of 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans have been holding talks for weeks about keeping LaFleur as chairwoman and then voting on Bay to simply become a commissioner instead of immediately ascending to the chairmanship for which he was nominated. The deal is aimed at alleviating some senators’ concerns over Bay’s lack of experience as a regulator — he is a former prosecutor who is currently FERC’s chief enforcement officer.

Norris questioned any deal that could keep Bay and LaFleur in limbo.

“I worry it’s an awkward situation for both Norman and Cheryl, that if Norman’s sitting down the hallway, chair in waiting for whatever the bargained amount of time is, and Cheryl still can’t make long-term decisions for the agency in terms of any kind of organizational structure, in terms of staff,” Norris said. “You just extend the dysfunction that has resulted from the politicization of FERC that started with Reid’s engagement with the chairmanship.”

Earlier this month, Reid told¬†The Wall Street Journal¬†that he wants to see FERC operate in a way likely to benefit his home state’s growing renewable energy industry. Reid also said he’s blocking LaFleur and supporting Bay (Greenwire, June 9). The position has pitted Reid against some senators of his own party.

But Norris said Bay can become the chairman if President Obama so desires, adding that he first became chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board only four days after he was confirmed by the state Senate.

“Is it difficult? Yes. But Norman Bay is fully qualified to step in as chair if that’s what the president wants,” Norris said.