Trump demoted key energy panel chair who suggested action on climate change

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, November 8, 2020

With the nation transfixed by the presidential election, President Trump demoted the head of a key energy panel who spoke favorably about taking action on climate change — a move the ousted official thinks may have been in retaliation for his views.

On Thursday evening, Neil Chatterjee announced on Twitter he was no longer chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, saying Trump replaced him with fellow Republican James Danly. Chatterjee will still stay on as a commissioner of the five-member panel.

The move comes just weeks after Chatterjee and his agency cleared the way for regional power administrators to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions.

Chatterjee, a Trump-appointed Republican who has served on the FERC since 2017, was among the commissioners who voted in favor of allowing electric grid operators to implement carbon pricing schemes set up by states.

In an interview, Chatterjee said he thought he may have been removed from the post because his recent actions “aggravated somebody at the White House, and they make the switch.”

“If that’s the case, that’s being demoted for my independence, he said. “I’m quite proud of that, and will wear it as a badge of honor.”

Many economists — including conservative ones — consider imposing a tax on every ton of heat-trapping carbon dioxide put into the air to be the most effective way of addressing runaway climate change.

Chatterjee, who once served as an energy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), agrees with that sentiment. “I made very clear early on in my tenure,” he said, “that I was concerned about climate change and wanted to take concrete steps to mitigate carbon emissions. But I did not believe in heavy-handed regulations, subsidies or mandates.”

In mid-October, he voiced support for a price on carbon, saying it did not “degrade market efficiency” like other anti-pollution regulations can. But he added the FERC was not taking “proactive action to set a carbon price” — leaving that instead to states governments.

Danly, his replacement as chairman, dissented from the move, calling it “unnecessary and unwise.”

FERC is an independent agency that regulates a broad portfolio of activities, including the electricity grid and interstate natural gas pipelines. Many experts regard the agency, which has a low profile compared to the Environmental Protection Agency and other bureaus, as key to cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.

Both the White House and McConnell’s office declined to comment on the demotion.

Rich Glick, the lone Democrat on the FERC, praised Chatterjee in a statement for “his willingness to ignore party affiliation and work with me on several key initiatives.”

FERC may be a tool for Joe Biden to combat climate change.

Should the Democratic presidential nominee win the White House, he may rely on the agency to help achieve perhaps the most important goal of his climate plan — ending the U.S. power sector’s contributions to rising global temperatures by 2035. That will be especially true if his party does not  the recapture the Senate majority as well.

“Without the control of the Senate, which it looks likely he won’t have, Biden is likely to look to FERC and its Democratic chair to achieve many of his climate and energy goals,” said Christine Wyman, a lawyer at Bracewell LLP, a law and lobbying firm that represents energy companies.

It is possible for Democrats to retake the Senate now that two races in Georgia are moving to runoffs. Both Democrats would have to win those runoffs, and Biden would have to be confirmed as president to allow his vice-presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), to break ties.

But congressional Republicans also have the chance to lock in a GOP majority in the next few weeks. the summer, Trump put forward two nominees — Democrat Allison Clements and Republican Mark Christie — to fill two vacancies on the five-member commission, but the Senate has yet to vote on the appointments.

If the Senate used the dwindling days of 2020 to approve those picks, Republicans could potentially maintain a majority on the commission into part of the next president’s term.

FERC is designed to have no more than three members from the sitting president’s own party.