GOP control to linger over agency key to Biden climate goals

Commission overseeing electric grid, natural gas pipelines and other energy infrastructure won't have a Democratic majority before June 30

A federal commission that oversees the electric grid and other energy matters will continue to have a GOP majority for months. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A federal commission that oversees the electric grid and other energy matters will continue to have a GOP majority for months. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 3, 2020 at 6:00am

The Biden administration will take over the executive branch on Jan. 20, but the new president won't have a Democratic majority on an independent commission that holds significant sway over one of his top priorities, a cleaner electric grid,  until after June 30.

That's because the Senate this week approved by voice vote a bipartisan pair of Trump administration nominees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which oversees energy markets, the electric grid, natural gas pipelines and large power projects like wind farms — leaving it with a 3-2 Republican majority until June 30, when the term of Neil Chatterjee, a GOP commissioner, expires.

"Just by the math it could potentially delay when President-elect Biden could put a Democratic majority in place,” Cheryl LaFleur, a former FERC commissioner, said in an interview.

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“It does a little bit,” said Tyson Slocum, energy program director at Public Citizen, when asked if the Monday vote would bind President-elect Joe Biden’s hands.

FERC had been without a full roster for nearly two years. Before Monday's vote, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Nov. 18 advanced to the floor the two nominees — Allison Clements, a Democratic attorney, and Mark Christie, a Republican member of Virginia’s State Corporation Commission, a state agency.

While the Senate vote keeps the GOP majority in place for months, Biden will still be able to exert his influence on the agency by naming a chairperson to lead the commission before nominating a replacement to fill Chatterjee’s seat.

The Biden transition team has prioritized four issues — the coronavirus, the economy, equity in race and climate change — and the administration is expected to push hard at federal agencies to tackle sweeping, systemic threats like climate change.

Facing the potential of a divided Congress, the incoming Biden administration will likely turn to federal agencies in pursuit of its policy agenda, placing increasing importance on once-esoteric commissions like FERC.

In the 1970s, FERC’s work focused largely on oil and pipelines, said Tyler Stoff, who worked at the agency during the Obama and Trump administrations.

Now the commission takes on broader energy questions, mirroring a “growing awareness” that it is both an economic and an environmental regulator, said Stoff, director of regulatory affairs for the American Council on Renewable Energy.

"That's a very different view of the commission from what it was,” Stoff said. “FERC doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”

Chairperson's influence

Once in office, Biden is expected to name Richard Glick, the Democrat on the commission, as FERC chairman, a post from which he will have significant power despite remaining in the minority. The chairperson can chart a different course for the agency by reorganizing the staff, beginning investigations and highlighting new topics.

“The commission is run by the chair so there are lots of things that a chairman can unilaterally initiate,” Slocum said in an interview. “All of the various divisions answer directly to the chair and not to the full commission. So the chair can start the process, putting his or her preferred people in charge of the divisions.”

Simply by setting the agenda at certain FERC hearings the chair can flex their administrative muscles, Slocum said.

“We just saw that recently right where Chatterjee scheduled a technical conference on electric vehicles, and then when James Danly became chairman he scrapped that,” Slocum said, referring a once-planned gathering. “That's a perfect example of the prerogatives that a chair can do so.”

FERC had signaled an openness to some steps to address climate change, expand renewable energy use and improve transmission during the Trump era.

"They've kind of shown that they are open to filings from RTOs related to carbon pricing,” said former commissioner Phil Moeller, using the shorthand for entities known as “regional transmission organizations” that operate U.S. electric grids.

FERC also issued an order, which a federal court in Washington later upheld, that favored the energy storage industry, and issued another order that benefits renewable equipment like rooftop solar panels, batteries and electric cars.

It also unanimously rejected in 2018, by a 5-0 vote, a proposal from then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry that would have benefitted coal and nuclear power.

"The commission is just a better functioning machine when all five slots are filled,” said Moeller, executive vice president of regulatory affairs for Edison Electric Institute, an industry group for electric utilities.

Full roster

Moeller, a former staffer to the late GOP Sen. Slade Gorton, who represented Washington, said it’s helpful to have a roster full of different views.

“I came from the Pacific Northwest and I knew hydro,” Moeller said, referring to hydroelectricity.

“There are nuances that if you don't live in the Pacific Northwest you might not recognize,” he said. "It's good to have five different perspectives on particular issues.”

Gregory Wetstone, chief executive of ACORE, the renewable energy advocacy, will be watching the end of the Trump administration and into 2021 to see what FERC does on transmission and energy storage issues, the advancement of which would benefit solar- and wind-powered electricity generation.

Like a lot of once-obscure facets of the federal government during Trump’s time in Washington, FERC swung into public view.

"I think FERC's profile is higher and I think it should be,” Wetstone said. "They're making decisions that are going to have a big impact on what Americans pay for. … They should not be operating in the netherworld where they just sort of used to live.”

He added, "There's a lot of the nation's economy today that wants to lean in to the climate."

Kate Konschnik, director of the Climate & Energy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, said FERC largely works well because it is required to have members of both parties.

“As a result, it’s a body that works relatively well across party lines. You don’t see the same sort of monumental shifts in FERC policy from one administration to the next,” Konschnik said by email. She citing rulings from two GOP FERC chairmen during the Trump administration who issued final orders that hewed to a rule proposed by Norman Bay, a previous chairman and a Democrat.

Konschnik said FERC could take into account greenhouse gas emissions when reviewing pipelines as a way of grappling with climate change.

Glick, she said, “has been a strong proponent of considering at least some of the climate consequences of new pipelines.” She added, “This will also be a hot topic going forward.”

In a statement, Amy Andryszak, CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, a natural gas industry group, said the organization was pleased with the confirmation votes: “We believe that the Commission will find consensus on many important energy regulatory matters, including on opportunities to expand and modernize natural gas infrastructure to provide affordable, reliable energy to consumers and put the environmental benefits of natural gas to good use.”

When she was a commissioner during the Obama administration, LaFleur said sharply partisan votes were rare. Still, commissioners would disagree and make their case in their dissents, and votes on issues related to climate change were at times divided on party lines, she said.

"That partisanship seems to have spread to FERC on those issues,” LaFleur said, speaking broadly about climate change and the future of the energy mix. "I do hope that the commission may be capable of some bipartisanship,” she said. "Climate change is occupying a bigger space in the zeitgeist right now."