Obama Pick to Head FERC Draws Rebuke From Republican Senator

Senator Lisa Murkowski said she won’t support the confirmation of President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, raising uncertainty about the agency’s future leadership.

“At this point in time, I’m not prepared to support your nomination,” Murkowski, of Alaska, told Ron Binz at the end of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Washington today.

Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the committee, said Binz hadn’t demonstrated that he could be an impartial regulator, and she questioned his candor in discussing with her a public-relations push in support of his nomination.

Her decision not to support Binz, combined with an uncertain vote from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, casts doubt over whether Binz, 64, will survive the nomination process. Binz, a former chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, has been the object of a public-relations battle between free-market and coal-industry groups, who want to block his nomination, and clean-energy organizations who support him.

Binz’s supporters and opponents had entirely different interpretations of the hearing.

“Based on his record and what we heard today, we hope Ron Binz will be confirmed by the U.S. Senate,” Malcolm Woolf, senior vice president of Advanced Energy Economy, an association for clean-energy companies, said in a statement. “He continues to show himself to be pragmatic and moderate, and well qualified to lead FERC.”

‘Rock Solid’

Benjamin Cole, a spokesman for the American Energy Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group that opposes Binz’s nomination, said “it appears that Republicans are rock solid” against the nominee. “In the end, it looks like Binz cooked himself” because Murkowski questioned whether the nominee was completely forthcoming, Cole said in an e-mailed statement.

Murkowski said Binz told her in a recent meeting that the FERC external relations office was the only group helping to support his nomination. She said, however, recent FERC e-mails obtained during a Freedom of Information Act request showed that he effectively had “a shadow team of lobbyists and PR experts that have been helping throughout” the process.

“I hate to think that this is going to be the new normal,” Murkowski said.

Clean Energy

The Green Tech Action Fund, a San Francisco-based clean-energy nonprofit, had hired VennSquared Communications LLC of Washington to advocate on his behalf.

“I have hired no one; I’m paying no one,” Binz told Murkowski, offering his apologies. “I did not intentionally mean to mislead you.”

Binz said he hasn’t been in contact with VennSquared since July 15 and asked the political consultancy to stop sending out material on his behalf.

The nominee, who described himself as a “solo practitioner” when a consultant, said he sought administrative support after he was nominated, and that he had disclosed e-mails to the Senate committee to show who was advising him.

Colorado Law

Binz’s critics say he had an improper advisory role in the creation of a 2010 Colorado law that encouraged the conversion of coal plants to natural gas, benefiting power company Xcel Energy Inc. at customers’ expense.

Murkowski’s opposition -- and the likelihood that other Republicans will follow her lead -- means efforts to persuade lawmakers will focus on Manchin and Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat whose state is a hub for the oil and natural gas industries.

Manchin, a Democrat who comes from a coal-producing state and whose vote is crucial in order for Binz to pass the nomination process, said the coal industry needs allies in Washington. While Manchin told Binz he is “concerned about some of your past performances,” he didn’t say how he would vote.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who leads the Senate panel, pre-empted criticism of Binz from the coal community.

“FERC has no authority to regulate coal,” he said in his opening remarks.

The FERC’s responsibilities include overseeing the reliability of the nation’s electric grid, regulating interstate transport of natural gas and reviewing electric utility mergers. Congress in 2005 expanded the agency’s enforcement power to help it police energy markets.

This year, the five-member commission has sought more than $900 million in penalties and settlements from banks including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Barclays Plc on charges of market manipulation.

“I am a little worried that some of my colleagues may hold up your nomination and leave the FERC at the end of the year with a 2-2 person board and somehow get stymied on your overall functions and responsibilities,” Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, told Binz.

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