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Regulators can no longer rubber-stamp expansion of the oil and gas industry

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For many people of color, low-wealth and Indigenous communities, the climate crisis isn’t hovering in the distance — it’s been living in their homes for decades. 

They’ve suffered economic hardships from crushing energy burdens and poor health outcomes from toxic fossil fuel pollution. They’ve endured affordable housing crises in areas prone to severe climate-worsened weather like storms, wildfires and fatal heat waves.

President Joe Biden came into office promising to make environmental justice the core of his government’s climate fight. He promised a just, equitable transition away from fossil fuels to renewables in a way that would protect those disproportionately harmed by the fossil fuel economy. 

Instead, his administration has made questionable decisions on climate. The latest concern is Biden’s nomination of Willie Phillips to fill the vacancy on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. 

On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to consider Phillips’ nomination.

Committee members need to know that Phillips repeatedly made decisions that favor corporations over the needs of the people. Assuming he’s confirmed, vulnerable Americans desperately need him to be a FERC commissioner who can lead our energy system into a climate-resilient and racially just future.   

As the body responsible for regulating interstate transmission of electricity, gas and oil and issuing permits for new gas pipelines and export facilities, FERC has wide jurisdiction over the country’s energy future — and bears some of the responsibility for its unjust energy past. 

As a member of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia, Phillips repeatedly defended and advocated for corporate utilities over the needs of the consumers, as recently examined by the Revolving Door Project.

In 2016, he voted to approve Exelon’s purchase of Pepco, resulting in Exelon monopolizing much of the Mid-Atlantic utility market and higher utility bills for DC residents. The move was deeply unpopular and opposed by Washington’s neighborhood governmentscouncil members and clean energy advocates

In June, acting as chairman of the commission, Phillips granted Pepco a $108.6 million rate increase — at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment and utility shut-offs crisis in Black and Brown communities that suffered some of the highest energy burdens in the nation. Sandra Mattavous-Frye, director of the D.C. Office of the People’s Counsel, called the decision frustrating and unprecedented.  

Historically, FERC has operated as a rubber stamp for the oil and gas industry rather than a true oversight body. Despite reams of evidence that polluting power plants, export facilities and pipelines are far more likely to be built near low-wealth communities and communities of color, FERC has never rejected a proposal on environmental justice grounds

That may be changing.

In March the commission’s lawyers were unable to defend FERC’s continued failure to consider the environmental justice implications of building LNG terminals in Brownsville, Texas. In August the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that FERC had failed to adequately analyze the projects’ climate and environmental justice impacts.

A recent Government Accountability Office report called on FERC to mitigate climate risk and boost climate resilience. And Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, the commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, called on Biden to ensure that Phillips and FERC act as climate justice champions. “While FERC has in the past often mindlessly approved destructive facilities, we have a chance, under your leadership, to embark on a new course,” Honore wrote.

So far, the Biden administration has been pushing climate and environmental justice priorities aside. There has been no effort to slow the buildout of pipelines or liquefied natural gas export terminals, Biden’s Interior Department has approved more than 2,400 new drilling permits, and U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has advocated for oil and gas production to continue if attached to greenwashing technologies. 

Phillips and FERC can help remedy that. The commission can play an essential role in implementing many of Biden’s infrastructure goals. It can pave the way for the buildout of proven renewable technologies — such as rooftop and community solar and storage — that help make energy more affordable and more resilient to extreme weather damage caused by climate change. 

We hope Phillips will use this new opportunity to put people over corporations and renewable energy over fossil fuels. If Biden is serious about keeping his climate promises, he needs Phillips to transform into an environmental justice champion who will lead FERC into an equitable, renewable future.

Dana Johnson is senior director of strategy and federal policy at We Act For Environmental Justice. 

Jean Su is the director of the Energy Justice Program and a senior attorney at Center for Biological Diversity.

Tags Climate change Dana Johnson Energy Environment Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Fossil fuels Global warming Jean Su Jennifer Granholm Joe Biden oil and gas Renewable energy Sustainable energy

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