Video may complicate FERC nominee’s path to confirmation

Source: Rod Kuckro and Hannah Northey, E&E News reporters • Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Less than a week after leaving the Department of Energy, Bernard McNamee delivered provocative comments dismissing renewable energy and emphasizing the need to push and campaign for fossil fuels.

Those comments — which were captured on video — are roiling opposition to his nomination to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

McNamee, 51, is President Trump’s pick to fill a Republican vacancy on the independent panel tasked with overseeing the grid, ensuring energy prices are reasonable, and weighing proposed pipelines and liquefied natural gas export projects.

The focus today was on McNamee’s remarks last February at a Texas Public Policy Foundation event in Austin.

At the free-market group’s event, McNamee emphasized the need for public awareness that “fossil fuels are not something dirty, something we need to get away from,” but instead are the “key to our prosperity” and a “clean environment.” He said that “renewables, when they come on and off, it screws up the whole physics of the grid.”

He also decried the “tyranny” of environmental groups that back renewable power.

McNamee had just started a new role with the foundation leading an initiative called “Life: Powered.” Just two days earlier, he had ended a 10-month stint as DOE’s deputy general counsel for energy policy.

A Democratic Senate aide said those remarks could be problematic for any hopes McNamee had of securing bipartisan support in the upper chamber.

“The Bernie McNamee from this leaked video sounds a lot less like the independent arbiter he promised to be at his confirmation hearing last week and a lot more like the architect of the Trump coal bailout at DOE,” the aide said. “That’s a real problem for his prospects of getting bipartisan support.”

McNamee’s comments also stand in stark contrast to his sworn testimony at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week (Greenwire, Nov. 15).

He told the committee he supported renewables but said the government should let markets choose energy sources. His decisions on the commission, he said, would be based on “law and the facts, not politics.”

At least four Democratic senators asked McNamee at the hearing whether he would recuse himself at FERC if confirmed concerning any proposal to provide financial support to struggling coal and nuclear power plants. McNamee refused to give a direct answer, saying he “would need to consult with ethics counsel.”

While at the DOE general counsel’s office in September, McNamee signed the department’s proposal to FERC asking the commission to consider a rulemaking that would change electricity market rules to provide troubled plants a guaranteed cost-recovery mechanism. The commission ultimately rejected the request.

When asked today about the video footage, McNamee declined to comment, opting instead to provide a statement emphasizing his independence.

“I recognize the significant role that renewables play in our energy mix,” McNamee said, “and I stand by my statement that if confirmed as a Commissioner, I would be an independent arbiter basing my decisions on the law and the facts, not politics.”

Battle lines

There are two version of the video.

One is less than two minutes long and features his most controversial comments. A second, 15-minute video includes more context from him, as well as an introduction by Kevin Roberts, the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s executive director.

The foundation has deleted the video from its website and didn’t immediately respond when asked about the clip or McNamee’s role within the organization.

Roberts characterized McNamee as a “movement conservative” as he introduced McNamee’s comments on “How Fossil Fuels Impact Life Today.”

Using slides, McNamee outlined what he called an “organized propaganda campaign against fossil fuels,” saying, “Our side needs to tell the story better.”

He touted his efforts while working for the Texas attorney general in opposing the Obama EPA’s Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule and said he was proud of being able to help Trump “see the Clean Power Plan put to death.”

McNamee served as a political appointee in DOE’s Office of the General Counsel from May 2017 until he left for the foundation in February. Between those times at DOE, McNamee was with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a position that Roberts said he hoped would last for the “next several years.”

The video clip is already being seized by some as proof that McNamee isn’t fuel-neutral.

The Natural Resources Defense Council — one of the environmental groups that McNamee criticized in the video — conceded that the clip may not stop his confirmation but emphasized it would shadow his decisions at FERC if he is confirmed.

“We want to believe that what Bernard McNamee told his Senate confirmation hearing is true,” NRDC spokesman Pat Remick said in an email, noting McNamee’s promise of impartiality last week.

“If he’s confirmed, we will be among those closely watching whether the sentiments he expressed in the video translate into discrimination against renewables and new technology, or otherwise taint his decisions on issues supported by NRDC and the other environmental groups he called out by name.”

Other groups — including Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the Delaware Riverkeeper and the Union of Concerned Scientists — have likewise flagged the remarks and vowed to oppose the nomination.

Mark Brownstein, the Environmental Defense Fund’s senior vice president for energy, took issue with McNamee singling his group out during the presentation. “The fact that Mr. McNamee singles us out says more about his mindset than ours,” Brownstein said. “EDF has a long tradition of working constructively with FERC commissioners on both sides of the aisle.”

But Republicans appear poised to approve his nomination.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said last week that she wasn’t concerned by McNamee’s past policy work and that his role at FERC would be different from what he had done in the past.

Murkowski also said she hopes to move the nominees to the full Senate after Thanksgiving.

Should a senator try to block a vote on McNamee, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would have to allow 30 hours to elapse before a hold could be lifted.

With a host of pending nominations and legislation ahead in the lame-duck session, the Senate may steer clear of taking that route.

Reporter Jeremy Dillon contributed.