Split Senate panel approves FERC nominees, bill to fast-track KXL

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today confirmed Norman Bay to take the helm of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after receiving assurances from the White House that he will remain a commissioner for at least nine months.

Following a high-stakes and at times confusing back and forth, the committee’s 12 Democrats and Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada voted in favor of Bay to lead the agency, while the committee’s remaining nine Republicans all voted against Bay.

The panel also voted to approve Cheryl LaFleur, the agency’s current acting chairwoman, to another five-year term as a commissioner, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) casting the lone dissenting vote.

The panel also voted to fast-track approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline — though it remains to be seen whether that measure will see any time on the Senate floor.

ENR Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told reporters after the meeting that she has assurances from the White House that Bay will serve as a commissioner for nine months before ascending to chairman. During that time, LaFleur will continue to lead the agency.

“The president as I understand is very happy to have both of his [nominees] moving forward,” she said, adding that President Obama has signaled he will elevate Bay to chairman after nine months. “It satisfies some of the concerns that I thought were legitimate.”

But Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the panel’s top Republican, said she couldn’t support Bay because the White House had not given her assurances that he would serve only as a commissioner for nine months, noting that the president has the authority to tap a new chairman at any time. Murkowski said LaFleur needs to be given full authority as chairwoman as she is currently limited in what she can do.

“I had conversations but have not had the assurance,” Murkowski said.

Landrieu, however, said the White House had provided such assurances and Murkowski chose not to take her word. The senator also acknowledged that Republicans aren’t “thrilled” about Bay but noted he has strong bipartisan backing.

The White House confirmed the agreement. “Norman Bay is a proven leader and dedicated public servant with expertise in the energy markets, a tough, evenhanded approach to enforcing the law, and bipartisan support in the Senate,” Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, said in an email. “He will make an excellent Chairman and we are pleased he is headed towards confirmation to serve in that role.”

Landrieu said she hopes the Senate will hold a confirmation vote in September, but that hinges on scheduling by Senate and House leaders.

“This was a tough hearing this morning, but these issues are tough,” she said.

When asked whether the FERC nominees had agreed to the deal, Landrieu said, “They’re good to go.”

Extra loud on Keystone XL

The 12-10 Energy panel vote to fast-track KXL, which would ship upward of 730,000 barrels per day of Canadian oil sands crude to Gulf Coast refineries, was far less uncertain than the FERC nominations but raised committee tensions just as high.

Landrieu began the debate by firing back at Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) for calling her pro-pipeline bill a “show vote” given the slim likelihood of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) allowing floor time for the legislation.

“There was no popcorn and Coca-Cola handed out before today’s meeting, and there were no tickets sold to get in here,” Landrieu said, vowing to keep up her push for the $5.4 billion pipeline despite resistance from senior Democrats to forcing Obama’s hand on it.

Murkowski sought to unite moderate Democratic KXL backers with the pipeline’s Republican boosters in pressing “Senator Reid to take up this bill.”

The chairwoman is under heavy fire from re-election foe Rep. Bill Cassidy (La.) and other Republicans who question her ability to leverage her gavel in support of KXL and other fossil-fuel-friendly measures (see related story). Landrieu promised to not disappoint: “I have pushed many bills through. Just get ready.”

Yet her fellow Democrats showed no signs of giving way on pro-KXL legislation that many of them view as an unacceptable intrusion into executive branch authority over cross-border pipelines, not to mention advocacy for an emissions-heavy, climate-threatening project.

“To me, this is about promulgating expensive, dirty oil when we should be doing other things as an alternative,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said yesterday.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) joined Landrieu and all panel Republicans in voting to override the Obama administration’s long-running KXL review. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who voted for a nonbinding pro-KXL measure last year, joined Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) — also the target of much GOP pressure on Canadian oil sands — and eight other Energy Committee Democrats in voting “no” on Landrieu’s pro-pipeline bill.