President Donald Trump has nominated Bernard McNamee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, seeking to put a chief proponent of the Energy Department’s coal and nuclear bailout efforts on the same commission that has unanimously rejected these efforts over the past year.
Environmental groups were quick to decry McNamee’s choice to replace outgoing Commissioner Ron Powelson, a Republican who nonetheless voted last year with the rest of the commission to deny Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s proposal for FERC to use its authority to create out-of-market payments for coal and nuclear power plants.
McNamee, by contrast, worked on this proposal as DOE’s deputy general counsel for energy policy and defended it in a Senate hearing this year as head of DOE’s Office of Policy. He has also defended the department's ongoing efforts to demand out-of-market payments for coal and nuclear power plants, using federal laws intended to keep critical infrastructure running in times of national emergency.
These efforts have been roundly decried by environmental groups, state and federal regulators including many former FERC commissioners, consumer advocates, and the natural gas, solar, wind and energy efficiency industries. They’ve also been undermined by data from mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM, which has reported no threats to grid reliability from the impending closures of several coal and nuclear plants in its territory.
These power plants belong to FirstEnergy, the utility that in March asked DOE to use its emergency power to prop up its now-bankrupt generation unit. DOE’s plan was also influenced by Perry’s association with coal company CEO and owner Robert Murray, an outspoken financial supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, whose company sells much of its coal to FirstEnergy’s plants.
DOE hasn’t made its plans public — they were revealed via a leak of a supporting document in June — which makes it difficult to assess how they would affect energy markets. But forcing utilities to buy power from the power plants likely to be supported could raise costs for U.S. consumers by billions of dollars per year. Preliminary estimates range from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity’s projection of about $4 billion per year, to The Brattle Group’s estimate of between $9.7 billion and $17.2 billion per year.
Unlike Powelson, who previously served as a utility executive and Pennsylvania utility regulator before being appointed to FERC, McNamee is an attorney who’s worked for the attorneys general of Texas and Virginia and for Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), as well as for anti-regulation think tanks.
His nomination, first floated as a possibility by Politico in August, has largely been seen as the Trump administration’s efforts to get a reliable pro-coal and nuclear vote on FERC.
"The selection is not at all unanticipated, as Powelson’s departure was widely seen as opportunity for the White House to more closely align FERC with its own policies,” Jason Johns, a partner at the law firm Stoel Rives, wrote in a Wednesday email. “It is my belief that Powelson’s opposition to certain policy efforts came as a surprise to the White House, particularly the White House’s efforts to subsidize coal and nuclear facilities. I’m confident the White House is looking to address those surprises with this choice."
John Moore, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Sustainable FERC Project, noted that “McNamee’s past writings and career track record suggest that he would seek every opportunity possible to support fossil fuels. […] He should be prepared to answer some very hard questions about his previous comments and positions, and how they would affect FERC independence” during his Senate confirmation hearings.
Mary Anne Hitt, senior director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, called McNamee “a political plant for Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Donald Trump. Collectively, they are trying to use FERC to manipulate America’s electricity markets to bail out dirty and expensive coal plants that are heading toward retirement, while locking in a fossil fuel future for communities across the country.”
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