Donald Trump has nominated a pro-coal/pro-nuclear candidate to help regulate America’s energy system, and Democrats are not happy. And given their energy policy objectives, they shouldn’t be.
Last Thursday the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a confirmation hearing to consider appointing Bernard L. McNamee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Of primary concern was McNamee’s opinions about so-called resiliency pricing, which is being considered as a means of supporting struggling coal and nuclear plants.
The Federal Power Act gives the federal government the authority to require energy system operators “establish just and reasonable rates for wholesale electricity for power plants that “show reliability ad resiliency attributes.”
McNamee was appointed to replace Commissioner Robert Powelson, who stepped down this summer. Powelson had reluctant to support the administration’s efforts to support struggling nuclear and coal plants. McNamee’s views are seen as more in keeping with Trump’s policy goals.
This has Democratic senators worried. Earlier this year, a leaked draft of a Department of Energy (DOE) proposal to subsidize nuclear and coal generation was met with bipartisan criticism. Although no such plan was ever released, the DOE has also explored using emergency powers to impose price controls to help struggling generators. Democrats fear that if such a proposal were to go before FERC, McNamee, who worked on these issues for the administration, would be biased.
“You played a key role in developing the legal underpinnings of a Trump energy bailout that was so flawed every member of the Federal Energy Commission rejected it,” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) told McNamee. “Now the President wants to put you on the commission that rejected the plan you wrote. This is not like having the fox guard the chicken coop, this is like putting the fox inside the chicken coop.”
McNamee repeatedly stressed his commitment to the independence of the commission.
“As to the issue, I think ultimately [it] is whether I would be an independent arbiter and be able to look at the facts and the law and make an independent choice,” he said. “I have no doubt that I can do that and that it won’t be influenced by politics.”
That wasn’t enough for the Democratic senators, who continued to press McNamee for a promise that he would recuse himself if another coal bailout proposal went before FERC. When questioned by Maine Sen. Angus King (I), McNamee told the committee that he would seek the advice of ethics counsel if such a situation arose. He refused to commit to recusing himself, to the disappointment of several senators.
“I don’t understand any argument where you would need to consult any counsel anywhere on earth to understand if you have a conflict of interest when it comes to this issue of the so-called grid resilience or price rule or any version thereof,” King said.
Pushing back on the questioning about subsidies, McNamee argued that federal policies to support renewable energy created market distortions. Instead of directly subsidizing particular generation methods, he said, it would be better to remove policies that distort market forces.
“The thought is you need to remove those distortions and get some more parity,” McNamee testified.
While McNamee tried to talk about free markets, Democrats treated the comments as code for supporting and expanding coal. McNamee is no favorite of the environmentalist left. Despite his assurances of independence, they see him a coal supporter and even sufficient reason to bar him from the committee.
“Bernard McNamee’s refusal to recuse himself from decisions regarding a coal bailout plan like the one he created while at the Department of Energy is completely unethical and should disqualify him from a seat on FERC,” said Mary Anne Hitt, senior director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.