Trump admin eyes Fla. PSC chairman for FERC

Source: Rod Kuckro, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Trump administration is vetting Art Graham, chairman of the Florida Public Service Commission, for a seat on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

If selected, Graham would replace Robert Powelson, who left the commission on Aug. 10 to become president and CEO of the National Association of Water Companies, the lobby for private water utilities.

Powelson is an outspoken Republican who touted his “mean independent streak.”

A former member of FERC who got to know Graham through the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners called him a “solid regulator.”

“Art’s got a strong state and local background — both at the Florida PSC and in Jacksonville. And he is an engineer by training, which would be a good background for FERC,” where the other four members are attorneys, the former commissioner said.

Graham, 54, is serving as PSC chairman for the third time since he was named to the PSC by then-Gov. Charlie Crist in July 2010.

A self-described conservative, he is a strong believer in nuclear power. But clean energy advocates cite his opposition to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and antipathy toward renewables and energy efficiency as negatives.

The consideration of Graham for the open FERC seat may be in addition to — and not instead of — Bernard McNamee, a political appointee at the Department of Energy who since June has been executive director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Policy.

McNamee briefly served at DOE in 2017. Before that, he worked in the Texas attorney general’s office, on the staff of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and at the Virginia attorney general’s office — all political positions.

But the close look at Graham by the White House may also indicate the resonance of the argument by state regulators that one of their own should be represented at FERC, as has been common during most of FERC’s existence.

NARUC’s membership at its summer policy meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., passed a resolution urging the administration to fill Powelson’s seat with another person with experience as a state official (Energywire, July 18).

“I just will tell you that it’s critically important that whoever replaces me understands the mission of the FERC” and has a “proven track record,” Powelson said (Energywire, Aug. 10).

“You’re not here to do politics. You’re here to be an independent thought leader. You want to work well with your colleagues to get things done,” Powelson added.

“That being said, I think the White House would be well-served to have a very competent state regulator come in and be part of this organization,” he said.

Greg White, NARUC’s executive director, said he believes Graham is “getting serious consideration” for the FERC job.

“I’m a little bit concerned that we may for the first time in many years not have somebody with that state perspective,” he said, noting that 13 of the past 23 FERC appointees came from state commissions.

“What was important to us was with Commissioner Powelson leaving the FERC, there would be nobody on the FERC that would be able to bring that perspective of what the policies at the federal level actually mean when you’re trying to implement them at the state level,” White said.

White said NARUC had been in touch with the administration — specifically Francis Brooke, special assistant to the president for domestic energy and environmental policy, as well as allies on Capitol Hill, emphasizing the value of having another state regulator on FERC.

One difference between Powelson and Graham is that Powelson was a state regulator in Pennsylvania, which is part of the PJM Interconnection, the nation’s largest power market.

It is also at the center of a controversial administration plan to provide financial subsidies to struggling nuclear and coal plants that cannot compete in the market against low-cost natural gas and wind power.

Florida is not part of one of seven organized markets. It is a state in which the electric utilities are vertically integrated and own all levels of the supply chain: generation, transmission and distribution. Revenue is much more certain for generation-owning utilities.

Graham is a member of NARUC’s Electricity Committee and serves on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association subcommittee updating the National Electrical Safety Code’s standards for strength and loading of overhead lines.

Before his PSC service, Graham was on the Jacksonville City Council, where his duties included helping to oversee the budget of JEA, one of the nation’s largest municipal utilities.

He is a 1987 graduate of the Georgia Tech with a degree in chemical engineering.

“We have been disappointed with the fact that Art Graham has not stood up for consumers on things like nuclear cost recovery,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

“He has not been a champion of energy efficiency, and he has not been a champion of customer-owned renewables,” he said.

White gave Graham credit for being open to utility-scale solar projects.

“But I would clearly put him in the camp of being somebody who very deferential to the utilities over customer and environmental interests,” Smith said.

“We’d be happy for him to leave Florida because he’s not representing Floridians in our opinion,” he added.

In a 2010 interview with the Jacksonville Financial News & Daily Record, Graham affirmed his strong support for nuclear power.

“The biggest mistake that we made” was after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, he said.

“The fail-safes worked. We didn’t have a nuclear explosion; the fail-safes actually worked. And we all turned and ran from nuclear power, and that’s the worst thing we could have done,” Graham said.

“It’s ridiculous now, that France is considered the nuclear expert. We’re the United States of America. We’re an industrial nation. We should be deep into nuclear. It’s good, clean energy. So why are we not doing it?” he asked.

“You don’t have to worry about all the carbon footprint; you don’t have to worry about burning up the coal,” he said.