What a full FERC panel means for the grid

Source: By Zach Bright, E&E News • Posted: Saturday, June 15, 2024

Three new energy regulators could blunt commission partisanship. But what if Trump wins?

Judy Chang, David Rosner and Lindsay See.

(Left to right) Judy Chang, David Rosner and Lindsay See, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s incoming commissioners, testifying in March. Francis Chung/POLITICO

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is set to welcome a new slate of members as a potential political earthquake in November could upend the panel’s job of implementing a transformative power grid rule.

After getting over the final hurdles to Senate confirmation, two Democrats and a Republican are joining FERC just weeks after the commission approved on a party-line vote the most far-reaching electricity policy initiative in decades. The landmark transmission rule required that states and utilities embark on a long-term regional planning process as the U.S. tries to meet rising energy demand and transition to a carbon-free electric grid.

The additions bring the commission up to its full five-member complement, and it changes an ideological divide that often pitted the views of Commissioner Allison Clements on the left against Commissioner Mark Christie on the right.

Three new members sailed through the Senate after both Sen. Joe Manchin (I-W.Va.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York urged senators to seat the new commissioners so FERC can handle vital natural gas and electricity issues.

“FERC was on the precipice of losing a quorum, which would create a backlog and slow down new projects that power our homes and communities,” Schumer said in a statement.

The two Democrats joining the commission are Judy Chang, a former energy and climate official in Massachusetts, and David Rosner, a former aide to Manchin. West Virginia Solicitor General Lindsay See joins as a Republican member.

Phillips, a Democrat, congratulated the trio of new FERC appointees in a statement: “The Commission works best when it has five members” and will “work collaboratively to ensure reliable, affordable and sustainable energy for all consumers.”

“It’s a bit of an all-star team joining FERC,” said Travis Kavulla, a former energy regulator in Montana and the vice president of regulatory affairs at NRG Energy.

Now, observers will be watching to see how FERC handles pushback to a landmark transmission planning rule passed with votes from Chair Willie Phillips and Clements, who will be leaving the commission later this month. Numerous states and power companies urged the commission to pull back its rule in filings Wednesday, on the grounds that it weakens individual state authority.

Christie, the only Republican on the commission at the time of the vote last month, said FERC overstepped its authority by passing a rule that could force states to absorb the cost of building out the grid to accommodate more renewable energy.

What happens if Trump wins?

What happens in the November election could give Christie and See power to shape how the transmission rule is enforced — in ways they don’t now have under a Democratic president who gets to appoint the FERC chair.

Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, so far has run on a platform that’s antagonistic toward wind power, electric cars and climate policies — all reasons for building a bigger and more advanced power grid.

But sources POLITICO’s E&E News talked with said FERC’s independent status grants it substantial autonomy despite being a part of the Department of Energy. Chang, Rosner and See’s confirmations “continue the tradition of FERC being an independent regulatory commission,” Kavulla said, “rather than just an adjunct of whatever federal administration is in power.”

Edison Electric Institute CEO Dan Brouillette said each new member “brings extensive experience in the energy sector and a clear commitment to public service,” particularly when electric demand is “growing at a pace not seen in 30 years.”

Ray Long, who heads the American Council on Renewable Energy, said commission faces “multiple critical tasks, including expanding interregional transmission, accelerating the deployment of advanced transmission technologies, reforming energy markets to maximize the benefits of clean energy technologies, and continuing to improve the interconnection process.”

It’s unlikely much of any of that will get done before the November election. The next big step on transmission — putting some policy in place to build power lines that connect whole regions, increasing electric reliability — has run up against opposition in Congress.

But the nominations didn’t leave everyone satisfied. There are issues of environmental justice that often come up in the context of natural gas pipelines and export terminals.

“Nothing said by any of the nominees during the confirmation hearings was at all reassuring to climate justice advocates,” said Lukas Ross, deputy director of Friends of the Earth’s climate and energy justice program.

The environmental group had launched a campaign in March directed against Rosner’s nomination to FERC, pointing to past statements of support for natural gas.

The commission’s new makeup will consist of four former state officials. Phillips previously served as member of Washington, D.C.’s Public Service Commission, and Christie was previously on the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

With Clements’ departure, the commission will lose a member who consistently pushed FERC to consider the greenhouse gas emissions of natural gas projects that the commission is tasked with permitting. She also strongly backed an unsuccessful process led by former FERC Chair Richard Glick, who tried to require the commission to consider the costs of climate change in its decision processes.

On climate-warming emissions issues, “you already saw a change going from Chairman Glick to Chairman Phillips, and now you may see a further change in the same direction with this new commission,” Kavulla said.

Gas in the age of climate change

See, as West Virginia’s solicitor general, has a history of fighting environmental rulemaking and arguing for the contentious Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 304-mile natural gas pipeline being built from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia.

Rosner, as an aide to Manchin, has expressed support for some GOP energy priorities, such as promoting the export of liquefied natural gas.

Chang in 2018 had voiced uncertainty about gas infrastructure in New England, but in her confirmation, she did not express the same doubt for the energy source. She had served as undersecretary of energy and climate solutions for Massachusetts from 2020 to 2023 under Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican.

Democrats will continue to retain a majority on the commission. But another Trump presidency opens the possibility for a Republican commissioner to be chosen to chair the commission. The chair is responsible for setting FERC’s agenda.

“It obviously puts the agency in an interesting position if the chairman of the commission is not of a party that’s in the majority of the commission’s membership,” Kavulla said.