New energy commission head pledges to avoid political influence

New energy commission head pledges to avoid political influence
© Camille Fine

The newly minted chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) says he is committing to keeping the agency neutral and avoiding political influence.

Neil ChatterjeeIndranil (Neil) ChatterjeeTo cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies Overnight Energy: Natural gas export project gets green light | Ocasio-Cortez says climate fight needs to address farming | Top EPA enforcement official to testify Regulators approve Louisiana natural gas export terminal MORE, a Republican, was tapped last week by President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE to succeed Kevin McIntyreKevin J. McIntyreGOP commissioner on federal energy panel dies Senate should reject Trump’s radical nominee to key energy panel Overnight Energy: Chief energy regulator vows to steer clear of political fights | Zinke was referred to DOJ shortly before watchdog controversy | Groups threaten to sue EPA over paint stripper MORE, another Republican, atop FERC. McIntyre will remain as a commissioner on the body, which has five spots but only four commissioners.

FERC and the companies and organizations that deal with it say they value the agency's independence and neutrality — something which Chatterjee echoed Wednesday.

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“No one was more committed to ensure the depoliticization of the agency and not allowing political interference than Kevin McIntyre,” Chatterjee told reporters Wednesday at FERC’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, adding that he wants to maintain the example McIntyre set.

“There’s no evidence that there’s been political influence or interference at the agency,” Chatterjee said.

Chatterjee pointed to one of FERC’s most contentious issues: whether to require higher electricity payments to coal and nuclear power plants, as Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryGas prices could rise 15 to 30 cents following Saudi attack Trump envoy presses Saudi Arabia to allow nuclear inspections Perry confident energy market 'will rebound positively' after Saudi oil attack MORE proposed last year. FERC unanimously rejected the proposal in January, but also kept the door open to future action, including inviting comments from stakeholders.

“Whatever we do is going to be fact-based, and that’s something that I and my colleagues take very seriously. This will not be a politically influenced decision,” he said.

While the Senate must confirm all FERC commissioners, Trump has the authority to unilaterally appoint the chairman from among the confirmed commissioners, without Senate approval.

Before coming to FERC last year, Chatterjee was a top energy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' Democrats press for action on election security Hillicon Valley: Election security looms over funding talks | Antitrust enforcers in turf war | Facebook details new oversight board | Apple fights EU tax bill MORE (R-Ky.). He was chairman briefly last year before McIntyre was confirmed by the Senate.

Like his old boss, Chatterjee is from Kentucky, and is concerned about the impact that closing coal plants has on miners and their communities.

But, he said, that concern will not factor into his decision on the issue of support for coal and nuclear plants.

“When I first came to the commission last fall, coming from a partisan legislative role in which I worked on behalf of my boss to fight against the retirement of coal-fired generation, initially, I was sympathetic to Secretary Perry’s proposal, because of my concern for these rural communities, because of my concern about what the retirement of nuclear units would mean for mitigating carbon emission,” Chatterjee said.

“But as I evolved into the role, I recognized that that is not part of our record, that doesn’t factor into the statutes that govern us.”

He declined to give a timeline for FERC’s consideration of the issue of electric grid resilience, which is the banner under which it considered Perry’s proposal.

Overall, Chatterjee promised that little will change at FERC after the chairman switch, including priorities and staff.

Like his predecessor, Chatterjee said some of the biggest issues FERC is working through are how it enforces the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, how it approves natural gas pipelines and whether its policies should reward coal, nuclear or other sources that may be labeled as “resilient.”

“Kevin demonstrated tremendous leadership in these areas and I intend to do my part to build on what he did,” he said.

He also plans to keep the staff that McIntyre brought on, in the name of “continuity.” That includes Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese, who has faced bipartisan condemnation amid accusations that he is overly political, such as by helping the Trump administration to identify power plants that it might want to work to stop from closing.

“I think it’s important to have some continuity. There is tremendous administrative responsibility in the chairman’s office,” Chatterjee said.

“From what I’ve seen, Anthony has managed the administrative capabilities of the agencies very well.”