Bernard McNamee emerged as one of President Trump’s most controversial energy appointees and was criticized for saying fossil fuels are the "key to our prosperity" two years ago during a stint at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Perhaps as a result, McNamee was confirmed along the narrowest of margins in the Senate to serve at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, by a 50-49 vote that fell along party lines.
But the 52-year-old regulator is trying to shed labels as he plans his departure from FERC to return to his home in Richmond, Va., after his term expires at the end of June.
"I think there’s been a sense that I’m anti-renewable or that at one time I was," McNamee said from his sparsely decorated office in FERC’s Washington headquarters. "I’m not anti-renewable."
Before joining FERC, McNamee served as executive director of the Energy Department’s Office of Policy. Before that, he served at the agency from May 2017 to February 2018 as a political appointee in the general counsel’s office.
Between his times at DOE, McNamee was a director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. Prior to his first DOE term, McNamee was chief of staff for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) and a senior adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — both political positions (E&E News PM, Oct. 3, 2018).
He also served twice under Republican attorneys general in Virginia in the early 2000s and was the policy director for George Allen’s (R) successful U.S. Senate bid in 2000. McNamee’s private-sector experience includes the law firms McGuireWoods LLP, Williams Mullen and Hunton & Williams LLP.
McNamee drew fire from clean energy advocates and lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in late 2018 when a video surfaced of his comments at a Texas Public Policy Foundation event in Austin.
At the free-market group’s event, McNamee emphasized the need for public awareness that "fossil fuels are not something dirty, something we need to get away from," but instead are the "key to our prosperity" and a "clean environment." He said "renewables, when they come on and off, it screws up the whole physics of the grid." He also decried the "tyranny" of environmental groups that back renewable power (E&E News PM, Nov. 20, 2018).
The outgoing commissioner sat down with E&E News to talk about his beliefs, climate change and life after FERC:
What legacy are you leaving behind at the commission? Are you concerned about being pegged as anti-renewables?
The commission by definition, by our regulatory authority, has electric issues and has natural gas. Inherently we’re going to be dealing with a variety of fossil fuel issues. They’re things that the commission has been doing for a long time.
In terms of my background, I got three solar facilities approved in Virginia. I did help get the first two [renewable portfolio standard] plans approved in Virginia and North Carolina. I’ve worked with renewable issues. Those experiences helped me understand some of the challenges and some of the benefits of how all these resources work together and trying to help make sure that markets are functioning well.
Would it be fair to say that your views on renewables have evolved over time, both with clients and working here and at DOE?
I wouldn’t say it’s evolved. I think there’s been a sense that I’m anti-renewable or that at one time I was. I’m not anti-renewable.
That video in Texas didn’t help you out.
I understand from each of my roles what I’m supposed to be doing. The point is that I’ve recognized, especially in the resource planning stage, how renewables can really help balance out the grid, can provide great benefits to customers. And I also realize that there are challenges to it, and various [regional transmission organizations], various utilities are clear about that. And that’s why storage can have some great value — because it’s going to help us integrate renewables more, because it’s going to be able to help provide that power when the sun’s not shining or the wind’s not blowing.
You’ve faced accusations of being anti-renewable, but you’ve given some examples of how that may not be the case.
The best way to look at it is I truly am somebody that believes in all of the above. I’m kind of like letting all resources compete. And so long as there’s a level playing field and that resources can compete under the Federal Power Act, I see that that’s one of our roles.
Are your plans still the same as when you announced your departure at the January open meeting?
That’s correct. The term ends June 30, and the way the rules work, you’re allowed to stay through the end of Congress.
My goal is to the best of my ability prevent us from losing a quorum. If I can leave June 30 or thereabouts, I might.
If Trump’s nominee James Danly is confirmed to FERC by the Senate and comes on as soon as the March meeting, would you leave early?
I’m staying to the end of my term.
Are you excited about at least for a while having another colleague on the commission?
James Danly is a very smart lawyer, very good person. The Senate will have to make its decision. But I think as a general proposition — the chairman has said this many times — we function probably best when we have a full complement.
When your term ends after almost 19 months, you will have served one of the shortest tenures as a commissioner. Are there major issues that you would like to see resolved by the end of your tenure?
One thing I’ve been clear about since I joined the commission, and I still find it’s my guiding principle — I don’t have an agenda. I’m here to deal with the cases that come before me and make decisions. Every case is important to everybody that shows up here. I really don’t have a set of issues that I want to have resolved before I leave, because I really see my job primarily — you’ve heard me say it — as an adjudicator.
It’s a little bit more reactive when you’re an adjudicator, because instead of pushing policy — obviously, what we decide has policy implications — but I really don’t have an agenda I want to accomplish before I leave. I want to do really good work while I’m here and hopefully leave a legacy of having helped the commission establish good orders, good rules.
I’m proud of the fact that after two years in which no [liquefied natural gas] facilities were approved, that we’ve approved 11 so far. And I’m proud that [Democratic] Commissioner [Cheryl] LaFleur and I were able to come up with a compromise [on how to account for greenhouse gas emissions] that let us do that.
Having been a practicing attorney and representing clients before state public utility commissions, I always appreciated that when I’d show up before those commissions — and usually they were appointed just like FERC — Republican, Democrat — I never had doubts that they were trying to make decisions based on the facts in the cases before them, and I took that as my model.
Now there’s always going to be differences about opinions of what does the law mean, what does the law say, what are the facts, and that’s OK.
And that’s why we have a multimember commission, because there will be different points of view. But for me, Congress makes the policy — the Federal Power Act, the Natural Gas Act, the other acts — and my obligation is to try to the best of my ability to apply the policy that they want to the facts that come before us. I think that helps take the politics out of it, too.
You were a controversial nominee because of your past DOE work. I think some people decided you had a certain attitude because of Secretary [Rick] Perry’s proposal.
I won’t say anything on the record on that.
Do you feel like you’ve been unfairly characterized?
My view is that our orders speak for themselves. As you know, I’m not out there usually giving press conferences about my positions, either what I think an order says or where it’s going.
It’s too easy in this town to … everybody wants to frame something. You know, something’s complicated — it’s a complicated order; let’s frame it. It means this. It means that. And my view is, that’s not helpful to actually dealing with the problem that’s before us, and it usually forces people to go into one camp or another camp, and then it just politicizes the whole issue, whereas with most issues, there’s a lot of gray, and we’re trying to figure what’s the right answer.
When I was 26 and started doing policy work, the world was black-and-white. I knew what was right, and everybody else was wrong. But I’m in my 50s now, and I realize there’s usually different points of view, and it’s a little bit gray in the middle. And so there’s not often a clear right or wrong answer. It’s trying to get to what’s the best answer with the facts and the law that you have before you.
You’ve said in the past FERC doesn’t have the authority to cap greenhouse gases. What if Congress gave you that authority?
I am committed that what Congress wants us to do, we’re going to do. And I look at the fact that Congress has tried — I think I had in my 35-page concurrence on the natural gas issues and our authorities, and I think I mentioned that in the last 15 years, there may have been 70 attempts to pass greenhouse gas legislation, and Congress wasn’t able to come to an agreement. That helps inform me about maybe where our authorities are.
If Congress directs us to do something and I’m still on the commission, I don’t have a problem following, because it’s not about the policies and isn’t about whether I think greenhouse gases are a challenge. It’s not about whether or not I think it’s a good idea to measure them or not. It’s about what is our authority. And so if Congress tells us to do something, I have no problem doing what Congress tell us to do.
During your confirmation hearing, you were asked whether you believe climate change is caused by man, and you said yes.
I agree that the climate’s changing, and that man has a role in it.
So you’re saying that if FERC were given the authority or direction by Congress, FERC would have to do that. But right now, you see that as an environmental regulator’s, not an economic regulator’s, job?
Congress did designate EPA to be the primary agency to establish what are the pollutants, what needs to be regulated and how to regulate them, and they haven’t set any standards for that. And so we don’t have the authority to come up with those standards ourselves.
Looking at the power sector, are you surprised at how quickly regulators, CEOs, attorneys or FERC members have to deal with this pace of change coming?
One of the benefits of markets is instead of policymakers picking the winners and losers, the market does — because you never know what’s coming down the pike. And so that’s one of the great benefits of markets, is letting the market decide who should be the winners and losers. And that’s just a general philosophical view.
Hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling suddenly brought about the American energy renaissance. And I would argue that that’s helped us integrated more renewables, because it’s allowed us to balance the system out by making sure that we can integrate renewables more efficiently and be able to take advantage of them because of the flexibility that you have in natural gas.
And who knows if we’ll have small modular reactors? Who knows if we’ll have some new battery technology or new wind blade technology or new solar film that will just dramatically change things? You know, that’s the exciting thing, is you’re not quite sure what’s around the corner that just may completely transform things.
What will you miss when you walk out of here?
I’m going to miss working with my personal staff but also the people here at the commission and my colleagues. I’m going to miss interacting with all the people that come before FERC. I mean, there’s a lot of just really smart, interesting people that you get to meet, and I feel fortunate to get to learn from them when I meet with them and just the issues I learn about, the practical challenges that they have, the new technologies. This has been a great education. I’ve really enjoyed getting the opportunity to learn and hopefully contribute to America’s energy landscape.
What has surprised you most about working at the agency?
Every day I’m learning something new, and that’s what makes this job so fantastic and probably what I’ll miss most about it. But also, recognizing that you don’t know everything helps make you also open to learning new things and making sure you don’t prejudge something.
Is the process that you and your staff go through as collegial as you expected it to be?
Most of our orders are unanimous. And I think the real issue is how do we deal with each other, and my view is let’s talk, let’s hear what the other side thinks, what they’re thinking, and be open-minded, because you know, your views can change based on what you learn. And so I think that we as a commission are functioning I think well, especially when we’re down to only the three of us. There’s going to be things that we have disagreements on, and that’s fine.
Any plans after you leave FERC? Vacation?
I hope so. It kind of all depends on when I walk out the door. Obviously, I’d like to spend some time with my family. I’ll also eventually have to start looking for another job. We’ll see what my opportunities are after this.
Unfortunately, I’ve spent so much of my life working, between law firm jobs and public policy jobs and these jobs — I forgot to develop a hobby. My real hobby is going to be spending time with my son and with my wife and just enjoying the time with them.
I do like reading, but the problem is I read all day. You know, I like cars, but I don’t have a great car that I like.
Do you have an EV?
No. I drive used cars right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.