White House may wait months to fill FERC vacancy — sources

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, November 13, 2015

The White House may wait months to fill a vacant Republican seat on the powerful Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — and then use that nomination as a bargaining chip when the time comes, according to sources.

The Obama administration has yet to tap a replacement for Philip Moeller, a member of the agency who stepped down at the end of last month to pursue opportunities in the private sector.

Moeller, whose term expired June 30, was with the agency nine years. The outspoken commissioner warned about effects of new environmental rules on the electric grid and the closure of coal plants. More recently, Moeller said FERC will have to tackle the issue of distributed generation in coming years (EnergyWire, Oct. 30).

Moeller’s vacancy has left the agency with three Democrats — Chairman Norman Bay and Commissioners Cheryl LaFleur and Colette Honorable — and Commissioner Tony Clark as the lone Republican.

Although speculation was high in recent weeks that Moeller would be replaced by Patrick McCormick, senior counsel for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, his fate is now unclear.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the committee, which has jurisdiction over FERC, said McCormick is comfortable working for the panel. But Murkowski wouldn’t comment on whether McCormick was still a contender for the FERC position.

“I’m certainty comfortable because he’s an incredible asset on the Energy Committee,” the senator said.

Murkowski hired McCormick, an energy market lawyer, as the panel’s special counsel in 2011. He came to the committee from the regulated markets and energy infrastructure practice at Hunton & Williams LLP and worked as an attorney for FERC. McCormick is now chief counsel.

McCormick’s role was of high interest when Murkowski expressed opposition to Ron Binz, a past President Obama nominee to the commission who later stepped back after facing furious backlash from the fossil industry and free-market groups. Hunton & Williams represented coal giant Peabody Energy Corp. when the company was involved in a controversial case before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and Binz was its chairman (E&E Daily, May 13).

For now, Murkowski said the commission is moving ahead.

“Moeller was just a good, strong commissioner. FERC is proceeding ahead, they can still do their business, which I think is important,” Murkowski said. “Obviously, do we want to see a full complement? Yes. Do we want to see a functioning FERC? Yes. But I haven’t lost a lot of sleep thinking about what the White House is doing on that.”

While one source speculated that the White House wouldn’t nominate a new commissioner until after the 2016 presidential election, others said the administration would be more likely to make a move before a lame-duck session sets in and makes any confirmation more difficult.

GOP strategist Mike McKenna said there’s no “burning need” for the White House to fill the vacancy given that the agency is running smoothly and isn’t seeing any split votes among the commissioners. But the administration, he added, may be keen on using the FERC nomination to secure passage for a Democratic appointee to another post whose confirmation has been stalled — possibly a judicial nominee or an acting agency official.

“If it’s going to happen, I think it’ll happen during the first six months of [2016]. And I’ve got to believe it’s going to happen because it’s a nice trade.”

McKenna also rejected the notion that McCormick is out of the running.

“I think that Pat is still very much a possibility,” he said. “He’s the best-qualified guy sitting out there.”