Energy & Environment

Trump triggers battle over energy nominees


President Trump is facing a new fight with Democrats and greens over his energy agenda.

Trump last week nominated two officials to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is responsible for permitting decisions on hot-button energy projects such as natural gas pipelines and export terminals.

Those projects are increasingly in the crosshairs of environmental activists and Democrats, who are vowing to fight Trump’s nominees: Neil Chatterjee, an energy aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Robert Powelson, a Pennsylvania utilities regulator.

Greens have long targeted FERC, seeing the agency, which has easily signed off on infrastructure projects, as a rubber stamp for the energy industry.

But the commission’s goals overlap with two prominent Trump initiatives: promoting American natural gas production and getting a $1 trillion package for U.S. infrastructure projects.

Both sides see it as a crucial fight for setting the agenda on American domestic energy production.

Trump’s nominations also come as the agency’s board faces the prospect of dwindling to only one member by this fall, raising the stakes for both sides.

More than 160 activist groups have already signed a petition urging the Senate to oppose Trump’s picks, asking senators “to speak out about the myriad problems with FERC and press Trump’s nominees about its rubber-stamp history for gas industry expansion.”

The groups said in a statement that they had organized phone call campaigns on FERC and are planning to hold a lobbying event in Washington later this month opposing nominations to the commission.

John Moore, the director of the Sustainable FERC Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he hopes Trump’s nominees will make permitting decisions that facilitate the expansion of renewable energy or allow states to move forward with proposals to increase clean electricity standards. 

“Facilitate, don’t frustrate,” Moore said. “I hope the nomination process sticks to the facts, rather than going down the road of red herrings or political arguments in favor of fossil fuels or other energy choices.”

The energy industry, on the other hand, has been openly frustrated by how long it took Trump to put forward FERC nominees and hopes to see them quickly confirmed.

The commission lost its quorum in February when then-Chairman Norman Bay, a controversial appointee of former President Barack Obama, resigned, leaving the commission with only two members. A cadre of projects valued at $50 billion, according to Bloomberg, has stalled while awaiting approval from FERC. 

Last month, another Obama appointee, Colette Honorable, announced she would not seek another term when her tenure expires in June, raising the possibility that the board’s membership could fall to only a sole member, acting Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur, a Democrat. 

Energy industry groups quickly gave their stamp of approval to the picks and urged Congress to fast-track their confirmations. 

“I think, politically, there is a commitment to move expeditiously,” said Christopher Guith, the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. 

“That is especially relative these days because you have a minority using every avenue to delay every nomination, but at the end of the day, not only do they not have the votes to stop the average nomination, but in this case I don’t think you’re going to find much
opposition to begin with.”

Democrats, though, are gearing up to fight Trump’s nominees. 

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Democrats are likely to oppose confirming Trump’s two Republican picks until he also nominates a Democrat to the five-member board. The board usually contains only three members from the president’s party.

Cantwell and Senate Democrats sent Trump a letter in March asking him to “honor this long-standing practice in nominating individuals to serve on the commission.” She predicted this week that Democrats, from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on down, would oppose the picks until a Democrat is included as well.  

“You can have hearings, but whether we’re going to move forward with them without Democrats, I think the answer that Sen. Schumer would give is no,” Cantwell said on Thursday.

Schumer’s office did not reply to a request for comment on Friday. The White House did not answer questions related to the potential search for a Democratic nominee.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the energy panel’s chairwoman, said the committee will hold confirmation hearings on the nominees when members receive their paperwork.

In a statement Thursday, Murkowski praised Trump’s nominees as “well-qualified,” and she said she would “seek to confirm them as expeditiously as possible.”

Despite rumblings from Democrats, Guith predicted an easier path forward for Trump’s nominees than some put forward by Obama, who notably had to cut a deal with Republicans in 2014 in order to get Bay installed as chairman.

“There were definitely a handful of nominations in the previous administration that made FERC more politicized than it had been, to the point where people were opposing nominations, but I think things have gotten back on track,” Guith said. 

But, he cautioned, “If FERC is getting front-page headlines, that’s probably not a good thing.”

Tags Barack Obama Chuck Schumer Lisa Murkowski Maria Cantwell Mitch McConnell

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