Trump official posts concern about warming while on vacation

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Neil Chatterjee wants you to know that he believes in man-made climate change.

The Republican appointee, plucked by President Trump to sit on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is even saying it while he’s on vacation.

He posted a picture to Facebook on Sunday of a seaweed-covered beach in Cancun, Mexico, which he’s visiting with his family.

Chatterjee wrote: “I’ve been coming to this pristine beach since I was a kid. This was the scene today. Climate change is real. Man has an impact. We must take steps to mitigate emissions asap while being sensitive to communities that get hurt during the transition. Please let’s all be rational and work together. I’m ready.”

FERC has long struggled with how to cope with climate change. Neither the Federal Power Act nor the Natural Gas Act — the two laws that give the commission its authority — mentions climate change. But both laws give the commission the power to consider environmental impacts of energy projects.

Meanwhile, climate has become an increasingly important component to the commission’s deliberations, even if it often goes unmentioned.

Among the climate matters FERC is currently wrestling with: how to measure greenhouse gas emissions associated with pipelines, the impact of state climate programs on wholesale electricity markets, and inquiries into the role of distributed energy resources in wholesale markets.

The commission’s two Democratic members have become increasingly vocal about climate change and the role it plays in their decisions. But Republican members have been more muted.

Chatterjee, at first glance, would appear an unlikely candidate to pipe up. When he was appointed to the commission last year, he sounded optimistic about Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s proposal to subsidize coal and nuclear facilities (Greenwire, Nov. 16, 2017). Chatterjee later joined his colleagues in unanimously rejecting the idea.

In an email from Cancun, the FERC commissioner said his Facebook post was prompted by “seeing firsthand what could be an indicator of impacts of climate change.”

“We are blessed to have the opportunity to enjoy these resources and the natural beauty of our surrounding environment, but unless something changes, future generations may not have the same good fortune,” Chatterjee said.

Chatterjee is a former energy aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has expressed skepticism about climate change. But Chatterjee has split from his former boss, saying several times since taking his seat at FERC that he believes in climate change (Greenwire, July 13).

Chatterjee said some of his critics assume a conservative Republican won’t accept mainstream research on rising temperatures.

“That’s why I think it’s been hard for some folks to reconcile the fact that I, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s former energy advisor, could be sympathetic to those who’ve been hurt by economic devastation in coal communities but also openly acknowledge that policymakers need to do something about climate change’s impact on our environment,” Chatterjee wrote in the email to E&E News.

“I think for too long those two views have been portrayed as being mutually exclusive. So I hope that my comments can shed some light on this and that those who’ve been skeptical will be able to see that you can be a conservative, from Kentucky, who’s sensitive to those whose way of life has for so long been reliant on coal while still being serious about addressing climate change,” he added.

Chatterjee’s comments follow a series of high-profile pipeline decisions by FERC.

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that FERC needed to account for the emissions impact of the Sabal Trail project, a nearly 500-mile pipeline delivering gas from the Southeast to power plants in central Florida.

Traditionally, FERC considered the fugitive emissions associated with the gas, rather than the overall emissions associated with drilling for and burning it. In the Sabal Trail case, FERC was ordered to conduct an analysis of the impact associated with burning the gas.

FERC complied. Its analysis concluded that Florida’s emissions would rise 3.6 to 9.9 percent above 2015 levels (Greenwire, March 15). But the commission declined to use EPA’s social cost of carbon calculator, which would have assigned a monetary value to the cost of carbon pollution.

Then, in May, the commission denied a request to rehear a challenge to a New York pipeline project. FERC declined to weigh the project’s emissions impact (Energywire, June 5).

The decisions have prompted criticism from environmentalists, who say the commission is doing the bare minimum on climate.

“To protect our communities and our environment from climate disaster, we need more than a Facebook post,” said Kelly Martin, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign. “We need real reform to transform FERC from a rubber stamp for dirty fossil fuel projects to an agency that makes decisions with the best interests of our climate and communities in mind.”

Other environmentalists were willing to give Chatterjee more leeway.

“I truly think the divide is more about how than whether this is important,” said Gillian Giannetti, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I would hope as extremely intelligent, thoughtful human beings and commissioners that there are five votes for a determination that climate change is real. Where the division is what can FERC do about it. I remain optimistic that Commissioner Chatterjee, as well as everyone else on the commission, will continue to evaluate that question as science evolves.”

Avi Zevin, an attorney with the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law, said the commission has had a mixed record on climate in recent months.

While it issued a greenhouse gas estimate in the Sabal Trail case — a win for climate hawks — its recent decision to overall the capacity market in the PJM Interconnection, a wholesale electric market, could be a boon for coal and gas plants (Climatewire, July 6).

The commission is also investigating the resilience of the U.S. electric grid. But that inquiry has largely focused on whether the grid can survive extreme weather events if coal and nuclear plants continue to be retired. It has not focused on fossil fuel facilities’ contribution to extreme weather events, Zevin said.

“The commission itself doesn’t seem to be looking for opportunities to address climate changes, but sometimes it is faced with them and it has to react,” Zevin said. “If he decides climate change is an important issue for the commission to tackle, there would be a lot of opportunities in the near future to do so.”

Chatterjee, in his email, signaled that he does see areas for FERC to address climate change. He touted his support of nuclear energy and noted that some states have sought to preserve nuclear power plants as a way of maintaining “our single greatest source of carbon free power.”

He pointed to FERC’s recent order aimed at making it easier to bring more energy storage onto the grid. And he noted that the commission is taking comment on whether and how it should evaluate greenhouse gas emissions associated with gas pipelines.

Ironically, scientists are unsure whether the large amount of seaweed that washes up on beaches across the Caribbean from time to time is linked to climate change. The French government has launched a study of how to respond to and prevent the masses of seaweed, known as sargassum, that come ashore in places like Cancun and Guadeloupe, a French island, said Gilbert Rowe, a professor in the Marine Biology Department at Texas A&M University, Galveston.

“Does global climate change cause it? We don’t know. Maybe,” he wrote in an email to E&E News. “It may not be due to ‘warming’ directly but rather to changes in the distribution of surface currents or nutrient availability, e.g., some sort of enrichment by nitrogen and phosphorus.”

Only time will tell whether Caribbean seaweed alters FERC’s course on climate.