Senate support unravels for Obama's energy nominee

President Obama’s nominee to lead the Federal Energy Regulator Commission (FERC) is in grave danger as opposition grows among Republicans, conservative organizations and industry groups. 

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Even a crucial Democrat now opposes Ron Binz, and an industry spokesman has gone so far as to call him a “dead nominee.”

Binz, who from 2007 through 2011 headed the Colorado Public Utility Commission, was nominated by Obama in June to take over FERC, an independent regulatory agency with authority over interstate electricity sales, oil and natural gas pipelines, and other energy-related matters. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held his confirmation hearing on Tuesday. 

A committee vote to recommend Binz has not yet been scheduled by Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), but its prospects have grown dim in recent days, with Wednesday’s announcement from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that he would vote against Binz being the most devastating blow so far.

Manchin’s stance was hardly surprising after his statements in Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, when he lamented that Obama’s coal policies were beating the “living crap” out of West Virginia, a major coal-producing state.

Without Manchin, Binz cannot make it out of committee without at least some Republican support, but none has been forthcoming. Ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has already stated her opposition.

Binz’s odds could grow even longer if Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) comes out in opposition. It has been widely speculated that Landrieu, who represents a conservative state and faces a tough reelection battle next year, may join Manchin in opposing Binz to distance herself from the president.

If the committee reaches a tie vote, it could still send Binz to the Senate floor by reporting on his nomination without a recommendation, but such an action is uncommon.

Another hurdle is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who announced his opposition Thursday afternoon and said he would “work to defeat” the nomination.

According to Benjamin Cole, communications director for the American Energy Alliance, an industry group opposed to Binz’s nomination, Manchin and McConnell’s announcements mean that Binz is already a “dead nominee.”

“I can’t see a way that Senator Manchin will change his vote,” Cole said, adding that McConnell’s stated opposition means an attempt by Democrats to ram Binz through without committee approval would almost certainly meet a Republican filibuster.

Cole also said the Obama administration would not be willing to push hard for Binz when it had other priorities to focus on.

“How much political capital does the White House want to spend on Harry Reid’s nominee?” Cole asked rhetorically. Obama, he said, needed to conserve his efforts for more important battles, such as the ongoing debt ceiling battle. Without Senate support or strong White House backing, “the [only] question at this point is how long Binz wants to drag out this process,” Cole said.

The battle over Binz fits into a broader struggle that began in June when Obama proposed new efforts to fight climate change and reduce U.S. carbon emissions.

FERC, ordinarily an obscure agency, has become a major battleground, with conservatives arguing that Binz’s confirmation would enable the Obama administration to further a “war on coal” and unfairly promote green energy interests at the expense of traditional fossil fuels.

Supporters of Binz assert that FERC has no authority to regulate coal or otherwise impose discriminatory restrictions on fossil fuels.

An additional hurdle to Binz’s confirmation appeared last week with the release of several emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from FERC. The emails indicated that Binz received guidance on the nomination process from a public relations firm in contact with the White House and had corresponded with representatives from several companies FERC is tasked with regulating.

Critics say the emails show an inappropriate amount of collaboration with the White House and energy companies for a figure who is supposed to be independent and unbiased. The emails appeared to play a strong role in motivating Murkowski to oppose Binz, with her official statement emphasizing the need for “balance and independence” at FERC.