As much of Washington’s politics become more divisive and polarizing, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee emphasized their similarities and solid working relationship at an October 30 event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) also highlighted the importance of having a full complement of commissioners at FERC and the difficult tasks facing the Commission as energy markets change and states adopt new energy policies. The transition taking place in energy markets as more renewable resources are added to the power generation mix, gas-fired generation is increasing, grid reliability rises in importance and building new infrastructure is challenged puts FERC in a tough spot, said Sarah Ladislaw, senior vice president and director at the CSIS energy and national security program.
FERC is “an agency that has so much more on their plate than they ever have,” that the role of commissioners are not easy jobs, Murkowski said. Reform of the Commission’s rules implementing the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act is among the tasks being taken up, and legislation may be needed to ensure FERC has the resources it needs to carry out all its responsibilities, she said.
President Donald Trump on September 30 announced the intent to nominate FERC General Counsel James Danly for the Republican slot of the two vacant commissioner seats. The White House forwarded the nomination paperwork and the Senate panel is holding a November 5 hearing to consider Danly’s nomination, along with that of Katherine MacGregor to be deputy secretary at the Interior Department.
The move to nominate Danly and not pair him with a Democrat for the seat vacated by former Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur stirred angst among Democrats and environmental groups. The White House decision to break from a tradition of pairing a Republican and a Democrat to ease the Senate confirmation process has been criticized, especially since Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has forwarded background checks and vetting information for Allison Clements, an attorney formerly with the Natural Resources Defense Council, to be the Democrat nominee.
“We’re continuing to wait on that,” from the White House, Murkowski said. She expressed frustration “that we can’t get these folks moved through more quickly,” noting that it has been 10 months since the death of former chairman Kevin McIntyre.
Speaking with reporters after their comments, Murkowski said she would not hesitate on scheduling a hearing for any Democrat nominee to FERC. “They don’t have the numbers that they need,” she said, referring to recusals on some matters from Commissioner Richard Glick.
When asked if she is concerned about split votes among commissioners or having three Republicans and one Democrat on the Commission, Murkowski said, “I think we need to recognize that when you have more individuals on a five-member commission, you’re going to have a more effective working order.”
“We should have five” commissioners, Manchin told the gathering. Clements has been teed up and “gone through all the traps,” with background checks to be nominated.
Energy markets of today are much different than when some of the laws governing them were written, and the committee will consider if new laws are needed on certain topics, Manchin said.
There may be legislation needed to ensure FERC has the resources needed to do its work, Murkowski added. Whether that is increased staff or higher salaries to retain staff is something to consider, she said.
Manchin referred to the difficulties building energy infrastructure and opposition to transmission lines and pipelines, including Mountain Valley Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline that are designed to go through West Virginia and move Marcellus Shale gas to southeast markets. The pipelines are facing legal challenges from environmental groups and landowners, along with protesters at construction sites. Manchin said he believes that “people aren’t opposed to the pipeline. They’re opposed to what’s in the pipeline and how it gets there.”
But if the U.S. is to be a model for other countries “you’ve got to have the energy” and use it in an efficient way while transporting it safely and efficiently. If pipeline companies or transmission line developers were to share some of the revenue with states and local communities through which the infrastructure passes, they would have “no problem at all,” he asserted.
Murkowski and Manchin noted that they are friends and work together well, and their staffs on the committee work well together because of that. Both their states have been affected by energy market transitions, with West Virginia hit hard by the coal industry downturn and Alaska – where 85% of the state budget comes from oil revenue – dealing with decreased production and lower oil prices.
Manchin noted backlash “on my side of the aisle” when people found out he would ascend to be ranking member on the committee when Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) took the ranking member spot on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
“Mr. Coal and Miss Oil,” Murkowski joked, yet their first hearing focused on climate change and they helped broker comprehensive legislation addressing public lands that made it through the Senate and House of Representatives earlier this year.
Murkowski said she favors policies that keep energy affordable, accessible, clean, diverse, and secure. There seems to be a shift to favor clean at the expense of affordable, she said, referring to the Green New Deal.
Both lawmakers said energy efficiency should be emphasized more, as it is the low-hanging fruit to save consumers money and reduce energy usage. As technologies advance for renewable resources and costs come down for solar panels, “we’re all going to be energy producers,” Manchin said.
Too often Americans want to emphasize innovation and disruptive technologies without considering costs or the effects on consumers, the senators noted. “We’re so captivated with the next cool idea” that those ideas are not easily put into practice and opportunities are missed, Murkowski said. “It is not sexy, it is not cool to change out your light bulbs” but such steps can save $70,000 for a small village in Alaska, which is the equivalent of a teacher’s salary, she said.
Many constituents balk at energy efficiency efforts because they don’t like being told what to do, Manchin added. That is where a “carrot and stick” approach pays off by rewarding those who take actions to be smarter about their energy use, he said.
By Tom Tiernan firstname.lastname@example.org