Protests mark FERC’s first open meeting in 8 months

Source: Sam Mintz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, September 22, 2017

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee presided over his first open commission meeting yesterday, and the agency’s first in eight months, now that the panel has regained a quorum.

While the meeting featured a fairly low-profile agenda noticeably lacking any major policy issues or infrastructure project approvals, dozens of protesters greeted commissioners inside and out.

Chatterjee, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), took over as chairman shortly after the Senate confirmed him in August.

This morning was also the first meeting for Commissioner Robert Powelson, a former Pennsylvania state regulator, who joined Chatterjee and Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur, a Democratic appointee who has been at FERC since 2010.

The agency was without a quorum for more than six months after the February resignation of Chairman Norman Bay, and Powelson called that gap a “historic transition period.”

The panel approved more than two dozen orders as part of a consent calendar, without any further discussion. One analyst called the agenda items “vanilla” (Energywire, Sept. 20).

Chatterjee said that to some degree, the commission is waiting to have a full complement of five members before it tackles big policy issues.

Kevin McIntyre, a Jones Day energy lawyer, and Richard Glick, a Democratic Senate aide, cleared a Senate committee earlier this week and are waiting for a vote in the full chamber.

“Certainly our primary focus is to work through the backlog, and we continue to do that with the three of us,” Chatterjee told reporters after the meeting.

“That said, I have noted repeatedly that FERC speaks loudest when it speaks with one voice, and for some of the major issues before the commission, it would certainly be my preference that we tackle those when we are at full strength,” he said.

But Chatterjee also recognized that the Senate confirmation process carries with it uncertainty. “We are prepared to move on some of these major issues if, in fact, the arrival of these colleagues is delayed in some way,” he said.

A backlog of decisions grew during the agency’s six months without a quorum. And while the agency staff got special authority and issued hundreds of orders, several major pipeline projects are still waiting for approval.

Among the approved items were final rules and the launch of rulemaking on mandatory standards for electric grid reliability and resilience.

‘Make it our commission’

About 50 protesters outside the commission’s First Street headquarters made the common accusation that FERC serves as a rubber stamp for gas pipelines and has failed to properly regulate the fossil fuel industry.

“All they care about is profits before people. They are not picking up our phone calls; they are picking up phone calls from Dominion and BP and Exxon and the fossil fuel industry,” said Lennox Yearwood, an activist and president of the nonprofit Hip Hop Caucus.

He urged the other protesters to work for voter turnout in 2018 to elect politicians who will “put folks on this commission, make it our commission.”

Yearwood led the demonstrators in a quick rendition of “We Shall Overcome” before many went inside to observe the meeting. Police later escorted a small group from the room, again singing the civil rights anthem.

Chatterjee noted after the meeting that FERC has a public comment process in place. “One of the great things about this country is people’s freedom of expression,” he said. “We have a process in place in which people can go through, can have their voices heard and voice the critiques that they have about actions the commission takes.

Chatterjee added, “The commission doesn’t promote projects; we simply evaluate the applications that are submitted to us.”

‘Square peg trying to fit into a round hole’

Reporters asked the chairman about FERC’s independence from the White House and how it plans to respond to Trump administration policies, including the two-for-one executive order, which requires federal agencies to offset costs by eliminating or modifying two regulations for every one they create.

The agency has not announced whether or how it plans to carry out the order, but Chatterjee said this morning that its staff has done an “extensive analysis” about how the two-for-one rule would apply. The agency has declined to make that analysis public.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is also an independent regulatory body, has said the agency is “beyond the reach” of some specific measures in Trump orders on regulations (Greenwire, March 15).

Chatterjee said that the administration knows that FERC is independent. “Sometimes, in their, I would say, laudable goals to streamline the permitting process and better enable infrastructure development, sometimes FERC can be a square peg trying to fit into a round hole because of our independence,” he said.

“We will work diligently to see what contributions we can make to aid the admin in their goals without ceding the agency’s independence,” he said.