Wellinghoff announces departure; LaFleur to step up as acting chairwoman

Jon Wellinghoff, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s longest-serving chairman, announced today that he is officially stepping down Sunday and that Democratic FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur will step in to temporarily lead the commission.

Wellinghoff, a driving force behind the Obama administration’s efforts to green the electric grid, said today that he informed President Obama he will be exiting the commission Sunday. Wellinghoff announced the White House is naming LaFleur acting chairwoman of the commission.

Wellinghoff, a former Nevada consumer advocate and father of four, is heading to California to work for the Portland, Ore.-based law firm Stoel Rives LLP, widely recognized for its energy law practice.

With his wife, Karen Galatz, and two sons, Jules and Jacob, in the crowd today at FERC’s monthly meeting in Washington, D.C., Wellinghoff thanked his colleagues for their hard work and bade them farewell.

“I’ll miss you, and I love you all,” Wellinghoff said.

LaFleur, a former New England utility executive, will now lead the commission as the acting chairwoman, alongside Democratic Commissioner John Norris and Republicans Tony Clark and Philip Moeller.

The move potentially allows the Obama administration to sidestep the tricky job of nominating a new director and securing Senate support amid gridlock on Capitol Hill. That difficulty was highlighted by the publicly divisive nomination of Ron Binz, a former Colorado regulator who asked that his name be pulled from consideration for leading FERC following backlash among fossil-fuel-linked groups and a lineup of Senate and House Republicans (E&E Daily, Oct. 9).

It also quells Sen. John Barrasso’s (R-Wyo.) concerns about Wellinghoff’s ability to steer clear of potential conflicts of interest in light of his plan to work for a private law firm (E&E Daily, Nov. 8).

“This was the right decision,” Barrasso said in a statement. “Chairman Wellinghoff should have left FERC as soon as he accepted his new job. It was completely inappropriate for him to continue to work at the FERC while continuing to influence decisions that affect his new employer.”

Obama could now tap LaFleur to serve as the agency’s chairwoman without Senate confirmation, or nominate someone outside the agency to serve as chairman or as a commissioner who would need Senate support.

Potential candidates, according to FERC watchers, include Colette Honorable, chairwoman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission; Norman Bay, the director of FERC’s Office of Enforcement; Lynn Evans, a board member at the Tennessee Valley Authority; and Rose McKinney-James, a former commissioner with the Nevada Public Utilities Commission who is a Las Vegas businesswoman, lobbyist and renewable energy consultant.

FERC has in the past operated with only three or four commissioners, FERC spokeswoman Mary O’Driscoll said.

Wellinghoff expressed his respect and admiration for the agency’s workers today and said the meeting is the commission’s 999th and the agency is “batting a thousand.”

Moeller reminisced about meeting the chairman when they were paired during the Senate confirmation process and Wellinghoff was scrambling to find cufflinks, and the seven years of working together that followed. “We’ve had quite a ride,” Moeller said. “We’ve had our disagreements, but we haven’t been disagreeable.”

Reflecting on his legacy today, Wellinghoff said he’s proud of fostering a pathway for the incorporation of demand-side resources like demand response and energy efficiency into the markets and implementing the far-reaching Order 1000 to bolster transmission planning and cost allocation.

As for disappointments, Wellinghoff couldn’t name one.

“It’s been a tremendous run at FERC over seven years, 4 ½ years I’ve been chairman,” he said. “Obviously, I’m disappointed I’m leaving, but I think it’s appropriate for everyone to move on.”