In a brief meeting on White House nominees for the two open commissioner seats at FERC, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on November 18 approved Mark Christie and Allison Clements.
Both nominees will be added to the Senate’s executive calendar for potential consideration and a Senate floor vote. Sources have speculated that finding time for a floor vote on Christie, a Republican, and Clements, a Democrat, will be difficult in the coming weeks.
The lack of a full Senate vote on Christie and Clements by the end of the current session of Congress would mean President-elect Joe Biden would have two vacancies to fill with his own nominees in 2021. Several energy sources and senators on both sides of the aisle expressed hope that Christie and Clements gain Senate approval to have a full complement of five commissioners at FERC.
A coalition of 27 groups also sent a November 19 letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) urging them to schedule floor votes on Christie and Clements as soon as possible.
The trade associations that sent the letter include groups representing renewable energy resources, trade unions, industrial customers, electric utilities, fossil fuels, plastics and chemical companies, construction equipment firms and others. They include the American Gas Association, American Petroleum Institutes, American Council on Renewable Energy, American Wind Energy Association, American Public Gas Association, Association of Oil Pipe Lines, Edison Electric Institute, Electricity Consumers Resource Council, Independent Petroleum Association of American, Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others.
The letter to McConnell and Schumer emphasizes the importance of FERC in authorizing energy infrastructure that brings investment and jobs to all corners of the country. “Prospects for these opportunities become uncertain when seats on the Commission are left empty. FERC cannot approve new infrastructure, review rate or service proposals, or perform key functions without a quorum,” the groups said.
“We ask that you support our efforts to create a modern, clean, reliable, and affordable energy system by filling the vacant seats on the Commission as quickly as possible,” they told the senate leaders.
The head of the Senate Energy Committee declined to speculate on the prospects for full Senate approval. “It is perhaps too early to say what the floor schedule will allow in December,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the committee, said during the meeting.
Nominees for FERC “are among the most consequential to come before us,” Murkowski said before voting in favor of both Christie and Clements. She and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), ranking member on the committee, along with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), spoke in favor of both nominees, noting their responses during a confirmation hearing and their qualifications.
Christie is a chairman at the Virginia State Corporation Commission and has been in that role, where commissioners are referred to as judges, for 16 years, with approval through bipartisan votes of state lawmakers several times, Manchin pointed out. It is important for FERC to have a state regulatory perspective among commissioners, which it has been lacking since Robert Powelson left the agency in 2018, Manchin said.
Clements is founder of Goodgrid LLC, an energy policy and consulting firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Until recently, she led the clean energy market effort at the Energy Foundation. Previously, she worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council with their Sustainable FERC Project and as an attorney representing a range of clients in the energy sector.
The current makeup at FERC has Chairman James Danly, a Republican, Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, a Republican whose term expires June 30, 2021, and Commissioner Richard Glick, a Democrat whose term expires June 30, 2022. Thus, a Senate confirmation of Christie and Clements would give Biden three Republicans and two Democrats at FERC, though he could name a Democrat as chairman.
Christie was nominated by President Donald Trump to replace Bernard McNamee, with a term that would extend until June 30, 2025. Clements was nominated by Trump for a term expiring June 30, 2024, to fill a vacancy left by Cheryl LaFleur. Clements has been the Democrats’ pick to replace LaFleur since early 2019. Trump did not nominate her when he could have done so in tandem with Republican James Danly, who was confirmed in March to replace former chairman and commissioner Kevin McIntyre.
Murkowski commended Trump for nominating Clements and Christie as a pair, rather than leaving a vacant seat for the political party not of the president. That occurred in 2015 and 2016 “and that soon after led to the loss of a working quorum” at FERC, she said. Having a full roster of five commissioners heading into 2021 would put the Commission in a much better place than it was at the start of 2017, Murkowski said.
“The dynamic industries that FERC regulates need timely decisions and a level playing field, especially in these challenging times. Because it is important to put these nominees on the Senate’s calendar, I intend to vote in favor of each nominee today,” Murkowski said.
Several Republican committee members did not follow her lead, including Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who is slated to become chairman in 2021 if Republicans retain a majority in the Senate due to GOP term limits for committee chairmen posts. Along with Barrasso, Republican Senators who voted no on Clements were Mike Lee of Utah, Steve Daines of Montana, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi and John Hoeven of North Dakota.
A lone no vote on Christie came from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).
Manchin commented that both nominees are well qualified and deserve bipartisan support, rather than the partisan divide that took place in voting on Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Following the voice vote, Cantwell noted that FERC plays a vital role in overseeing energy markets, power grid reliability, decarbonization and protecting against market manipulation. Christie and Clements will be independent and professional in their roles, which is important after the “unjustified demotion” of Chatterjee that took place earlier this month, Cantwell said.
Chatterjee, who served on the staff of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for an extended period before being nominated by Trump to serve at FERC, has said he does not have any insight into whether the Senate may confirm Trump’s nominees.
In an interview shortly after Trump named Danly chairman, Chatterjee said a Republican majority in the Senate with Joe Biden in the White House would put him “squarely at the center of the debate” between Democrat’s clean energy agenda and Republican views. “That is a pretty exciting prospect” as the swing vote at FERC and Chatterjee is eager to serve in that role, he said.
In a November 18 statement, Barrasso said he intends to be the lead Republican on the committee for the next session of Congress that starts in 2021. Barrasso has chaired the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which he will hand to someone else.
Barrasso also signed a letter from Hoeven, Lee, and Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) that asks FERC for an update on its examination of power grid resilience (AD18-7) following rejection of a proposed rule from the Department of Energy. Wyoming is home to plenty of coal resources and the resilience proceeding was designed to examine issues associated with the closure of coal-fired generation and nuclear power plants.
In his statement on becoming the leading Republican on the energy committee, Barrasso said Wyoming’s “abundant energy supplies help power the nation,” while its parks and lands are prized by locals and visitors that aid the state’s economy.
Barrasso said Wyoming has been represented on the committee continuously since 1899, including many senators who led the committee. “It will be an honor to continue this tradition,” he said.
By Tom Tiernan firstname.lastname@example.org