FERC can’t approve energy projects until Senate confims picks
Senate confirmation process could drag into summer months
President Donald Trump has chosen a longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a state utility regulator to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, bringing the agency one step closer to regaining its power to rule on natural gas pipelines and utility mergers.
Trump plans to nominate Neil Chatterjee, a senior energy adviser to McConnell who previously worked for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and Robert Powelson, a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, for terms expiring in 2021 and 2020, respectively, an emailed statement from the White House late Monday shows. Kevin McIntyre, co-head of Jones Day’s global energy practice, was said to be Trump’s pick to lead the agency.
Federal lawmakers and industry groups including the Independent Petroleum Association of America and American Petroleum Institute have been urging Trump to fill the three vacancies on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission quickly. The agency lost the quorum it needs to make major decisions when former chairman Norman Bay resigned in February, leaving two Democrats to serve on the panel. His departure has threatened to stall a massive expansion of the U.S. gas pipeline network brought on by the shale boom.
"Shovel-ready, natural gas pipeline projects are stranded on the sidelines," Don Santa, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said in a statement. "To build this infrastructure, we need a functioning FERC."
Once nominated, candidates must be vetted by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee before a confirmation vote by the full body. Senator Lisa Murkowski, the chairman of that committee, has said she plans to clear nominees as quickly as possible.
If the confirmation process goes smoothly, it could wrap up by Memorial Day or early June, according to Christi Tezak, managing director of the Washington-based firm ClearView Energy Partners. However, Democrats concerned about the environmental costs of massive gas projects could slow the process. It took about six months to confirm Bay in 2014.
More than $50 billion worth of project applications are pending before the commission, including an application for the $2 billion Nexus gas line in the Midwest, which is scheduled to start by year-end. Other issues awaiting agency action are a proposed rule on commercial battery storage, and a decision on the commission’s income tax allowance policy for pipelines run by master limited partnerships.
As an adviser to McConnell, Chatterjee served as an architect of major energy and environmental policy in the Senate, helping to coordinate attacks against President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan that requires power plants to cut carbon dioxide-emissions.
Powelson has been on the Pennsylvania commission since June 2008, and also served as its chairman, according to the agency’s website. He was elected president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, a Washington-based advocacy group, in November.
The federal commission normally consists of five members who serve five-year terms. Cheryl LaFleur, a Democrat and former utility executive, has served since 2010. The only other commissioner now is Colette Honorable, a Democrat who previously served as chair of the Arkansas Public Service Commission. Honorable’s term ends in June, and she has said she won’t pursue another one.