The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, is an administrative body not widely known outside of the industries it regulates. If the Trump administration wants to move forward with its ambitious infrastructure overhaul plan, however, FERC will be a crucial part of the planning process. But the 5-member commission has been unable to meet since January due to a lack of a quorum, which has made many in Washington nervous. On Thursday, Congress took an important step to bringing FERC back to work, as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a confirmation hearing for the open FERC seats as well as the position of deputy undersecretary of energy.
The nominees, both Republicans, stressed their commitment to working in a bipartisan fashion to protect the public interest.
“If confirmed, I will bring a steadfast commitment to upholding FERC’s mission to ensure that the rates and terms of service by which utilities operate are just and reasonable and will do my part to uphold the public interest standard to which the agency is bound,” said Robert Powelson, at present a public utility commissioner in Pennsylvania.
Neil Chatterjee, currently an energy aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, agreed.
“Former Commission Chairman Joe Kelliher often reminded us that FERC speaks loudest when it speaks with one voice. I couldn’t agree more,” he said. “If confirmed, I feel confident that my straightforward approach and reputation as a consensus builder can help foster that environment in the years to come.”
Still, in Washington, consensus can easily become codeword for slow. Industry figures have already grumbled about the slow pace with which FERC issues permits. Following in the footsteps of several Trump cabinet picks, who have made predictable permitting processes specific goals of their tenure, Chatterjee and Powelson spoke about how they would expedite the permitting process.
“Certainly philosophically I want to ensure that the approval process is working as efficiently as possible,” said Chatterjee, who explained that he would work to better coordinate and streamline this process in a responsible manner.
Powelson, who has had direct experience with this process at the state level, agreed, saying that when agencies adopt a silo mentality and cease looking at the wider effects of their decisions, they cause “delays that cost real money.”
Today’s hearing showed the weight Senate leadership is giving the confirmation process and the importance of filling the seats. Chatterjee, was introduced by his boss, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who praised Chatterjee’s ability to find common ground with both Republicans and Democrats, saying that he would make a “great addition” to the commission. At several points during the hearing, committee chair Lisa Murkowski stressed her hope to quickly move the confirmations to a floor vote.
For both nominees, ensuring consumer protection while allowing for energy development was an important balance. While several members of the committee pressed for comment on specific projects, both Chatterjee and Powelson declined to comment without having seen the files. At the same time, Chatterjee said that the current FERC permitting process was too unpredictable, leading to project delays, and increased costs. He said that he “takes seriously the concerns and points made by stakeholders on all sides of the issue [of energy development],” but wants to allow state and local communities to seek projects in their own interests.
The idea of allowing local level authorities to make these decisions was something that Powelson called the states’ rights compact. Vowing to stand behind that principle, he reiterated his support for development.
“I give you my steadfast commitment to be fair, balanced, and to do my homework,” he said.
The hearing was an important step towards returning FERC to a quorum, with the hope of allowing it to begin making decisions on pipelines and other infrastructure projects before the end of the summer. Already more than $50 billion of infrastructure projects are on hold, awaiting a FERC quorum. The longer the wait, the more industry has begun to grumble. At a private event yesterday, Angela Becker-Dippmann, a staffer for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, admitted her office had received irritated calls from industry figures wanting to know when FERC would be back to work.
The hearing also exposed how man-made global warming has become not only a litmus test, but nearly a tenant of faith for some on Capitol Hill. While both men described the increased role alternative energy played in the electric grid as part of a portfolio of generation options, they didn’t go far enough for Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who asked each directly if they believed in climate change.
Both Chatterjee, who reiterated that he was “not a climate denier,” and Powelson, who said he was “proud of the direction we are going with our energy policy,” seem to have passed her test.
The hearing did not occur completely without event. At several points in the testimony, questioning was interrupted by protesters shouting “They’re killing people,” “FERC kills families,” and “Shut FERC down.” Police later arrested two men and two women and charged them with obstruction. One woman was released, while the other three protesters remain in custody. A group called Beyond Extreme Energy is taking credit for the disruption.