Energy & Environment

Senators air grievances on Trump energy budget, delays

Senators of both parties used a Thursday hearing on a trio of energy-related nominees to the Trump administration to criticize the president's policies and the delays in approvals by a federal agency.

Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee lodged few, if any, complaints against the three nominees before them: Dan Brouillette to be the deputy secretary at the Department of Energy (DOE), and Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson to be members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Energy Committee, said she supported the nominees, and her colleagues did little to disagree.

Instead, the panel sought assurances that their states' priorities would be protected if the nominees were confirmed.

The hearing came two days after President Trump unveiled his first budget proposal, which included deep cuts to many programs in the DOE, especially those related to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

"The budget the president released earlier this week proposes to slash many of DOE's essential programs. It would devastate our emerging clean energy economy and it would raise electricity rates across the country by auctioning off public assets to the highest bidder," said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who served as the panel's top Democrat for the hearing.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) worried that Trump's cuts to renewable energy would hurt the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in his state.

Brouillette said he is not intimately familiar with the budget proposal, but he cheered the Colorado lab.

"It's a fascinating place. It's a place filled with incredible talent," said Brouillette, who worked at the DOE under President George W. Bush. "You have my assurance, if confirmed to serve in this role, that I will advocate for the programs in this department," he said.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) tried to push Brouillette against the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, but he said he supports it.

She asked what Brouillette would think if scientific studies showed the facility to be unsafe.

"Obviously, if the science is so definitive as to show that the site is unsafe, I don't think it's in the interest of anyone to dispose of nuclear waste and endanger the lives of Americans anywhere," he said. "But if the science were to show that it is safe, we will be obligated to follow the law."

Senators largely asked Chatterjee and Powelson what they would do about certain projects or concerns in their states. But both nominees avoided any specifics, citing a need to keep an open mind to any matter that is before FERC or would be soon.

But they both emphasized the importance of approving infrastructure projects and giving states leeway to oversee their own energy choices, while allowing for a federal regulatory role.

Powelson said the backlog of issues at FERC, which hasn't had a quorum since February, is the most pressing problem.

"Obviously, first and foremost is the backlog of cases that are sitting there right now," he said.

"From cybersecurity to physical security to infrastructure investment, to include dealing with market issues, we are certainly not lacking issues right now at the FERC."

Numerous senators were concerned about whether FERC would try to exert more control over states' electric grids.

Neither nominee got into specifics but promised to balance the forces at hand.

"I believe in states' rights. I believe in local communities making these determinations," Chatterjee said, adding that FERC has responsibilities to ensure fuel diversity, reliability and other considerations.

Murkowski said she's working to hold committee votes on all three nominees the first week after the Senate returns from Memorial Day recess.

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