As Puerto Ricans who witnessed the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017, we watched in horror as Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on the U.S. mainland this week. Millions in the New Orleans area could be without power for weeks amidst dangerous 100-degree heat, while more than 40 people in the Northeast died in historic flash flooding — a sobering reminder that the long-predicted impacts of the climate crisis have arrived.
While President Joe BidenJoe BidenUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Schumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks GOP Rep. Cawthorn likens vaccine mandates to 'modern-day segregation' MORE is taking important steps to reduce fossil fuel pollution and make our infrastructure more resilient in the face of extreme weather, his true climate legacy may rest on who he appoints to an obscure but important federal agency.
While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is not well known to very many Americans, it wields enormous power over our energy future. No liquefied gas terminal is supposed to be built without FERC approval. No interstate gas pipeline can be built without the commission’s blessing. And FERC has jurisdiction over this country’s electric power grid. When it comes to climate and environmental protection, FERC is arguably just as influential as the Environmental Protection Agency.
There are five seats on FERC. Two are currently held by Democrats and two are held by Republicans. By law, no more than three commissioners can belong to the same political party. By tradition, the majority is held by members of the president’s party.
Biden has an opportunity to nominate a Democratic climate champion who, if confirmed, can join the two incumbent Democrats to form a pro-climate and pro-environment majority. Unfortunately, he is facing tremendous industry pressure to nominate someone who would maintain the status quo of fracked gas development — supported by the two sitting Republicans.
More than 20 huge new and expanded liquified fracked gas terminals are proposed in the United States. If built, they will lock this country and the world into a future that involves vast emissions of methane, the main component of gas. Methane is one of the most powerful climate pollutants and has significant health impacts when it is burned or leaks. It is also highly volatile, posing a huge explosion threat to communities near pipelines or gas facilities. The new FERC commissioner is likely to cast the deciding vote on whether more U.S. communities will have to live with these risks.
As Puerto Ricans, we are very familiar with how an irresponsible FERC operates. A company called New Fortress Energy built a liquified gas terminal near San Juan, one of the most densely populated parts of the Caribbean. Under federal law, that terminal was not supposed to be built without first receiving a certificate from FERC. But New Fortress didn’t seem to care much about the law. They built it anyway without federal approval.
You can’t really build a liquified gas terminal without people noticing. They are big, very big.
Yet, somehow, the terminal was built and began operations without FERC doing a thing. Eventually, FERC weighed in. It required New Fortress to apply for a certificate but has allowed the company to keep operating the terminal despite the fact that it still doesn’t have that certificate.
Biden needs to make sure that nothing like this can ever happen again. He needs to make sure that FERC has a majority committed to climate and environmental justice.
All four current FERC members are white. As we find ourselves more than one-fifth of the way through the 21st century, it’s not too much to expect that one-fifth of the membership of FERC should consist of people of color. That would be just one person on the five-member commission, but it would be the next person to join. Our engineering schools, law schools and other institutions have produced a huge number of highly qualified persons of color with the training and experience to serve as climate and environmental champions on FERC. The Biden administration could easily find a person of color who is well suited to serve on the commission and as a climate champion.
FERC is obscure, but it’s important. It deserves to be joined by a dynamic leader that centers equity and justice while advancing a clean energy future. Our climate and the health of our communities depend on it.
Ramon Cruz is president of the Sierra Club.
Ruth Santiago is a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.