Talks on FERC nominees continue as Senate panel plans confirmation vote

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, June 12, 2014

Jockeying over Federal Energy Regulatory Commission posts continued yesterday as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee announced plans to vote next week on nominees to lead the agency.

The committee will vote on President Obama’s pick to lead FERC, Norman Bay, and acting Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur for another five-year term, an aide said. But the committee hasn’t set a date for the vote.

The committee of 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans is trying to break a confirmation logjam, with some senators wary of Bay’s lack of experience as a regulator and others keen on seeing LaFleur holding onto the gavel.

Talks this week centered around 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 (E&E Daily, June 11).

It’s unclear just how any deal would be received by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). He said in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal he would support Bay and expressed criticism of LaFleur for doing “some stuff to do away with” some of what was done by former Chairman Jon Wellinghoff.

Senators yesterday appeared to be consulting with Reid’s office. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a critical vote in Bay’s confirmation, said yesterday that he was “working on” the nomination as he left the majority leader’s office but wouldn’t say what was discussed.

The very public tug of war surrounding FERC has worried some agency watchers and lawmakers who say the agency posts have traditionally been more about technical expertise and energy-business experience than political muscle.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) blasted Reid for meddling with the confirmation. “What I can’t understand is why the majority leader feels that he has to be the chair of the FERC, as well,” she said during an interview. “He’s got enough to do.”

Susan Court, Bay’s predecessor and the former head of FERC’s Office of Enforcement, said the political attention is a change for the agency.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my 32 years working at FERC and being a FERC watcher for clients,” Court said. “I’ve never seen the Senate or Congress be so blatantly open about influencing the White House with respect to the chairmanship.”

Court noted that leaders of the Senate energy panel throughout the years have had tremendous influence over who becomes chair of FERC, but Reid’s involvement in the process provides “a different twist.”

Obama last year selected Ron Binz, a former Colorado regulator, to lead FERC, but Binz later withdrew his name after drawing fire from fossil fuel and free-market groups. John Norris, a Democratic member of the commission, later said Binz’s nomination came only after Reid blocked his nomination for being too “pro-coal” (E&ENews PM, Sept. 17, 2013).