The Biden administration’s clean energy goals may hinge on actions this year at the Department of Energy, the Department of Interior and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
In coming months, officials at DOE are planning to disburse billions of dollars in grants to boost clean energy innovation, while Interior is set to release a new offshore drilling plan and FERC is readying new interstate transmission rules. With 21 months until the next presidential election, agency actions also could influence how Democrats campaign next year in their quest to keep the White House.
But top federal officials are facing challenges in implementing new funding and regulations enacted in the Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. Any blunders are sure to spark fierce backlash from newly-empowered House Republicans, who are charging ahead with energy-focused oversight investigations and moving long-shot bills to open public land for oil and gas development.
“Any sort of failure could land like a ton of bricks,” Christine Tezak, a managing director at energy analysis firm ClearView Energy Partners LLC, said earlier this month about challenges facing distribution of DOE funds (Energywire, Jan. 27).
Here are nine federal officials who will play a critical role in determining the direction of clean energy deployment, oil and gas leasing and interstate transmission in 2023. Several await potentially bruising confirmation battles, and all of them are expected to play a part in executing Biden’s unprecedented emission reduction goals.
Overseeing infrastructure law funds
As the current head of the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, David Crane will guide more than $20 billion authorized in the infrastructure law to help make sure clean energy projects are deployed at commercial scale.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tapped Crane last year to run the office, which is aiming to support carbon capture, hydrogen, battery storage and advanced nuclear, among other technologies. The OCED is currently accepting applications for hydrogen and long-duration storage grants.
“As Director of OCED, Crane has showcased his keen understanding of the industries and markets that will deliver an equitable clean energy future and a clear vision for DOE implementation of the President’s ambitious agenda,” DOE said in a statement. “We’re hopeful that the Senate will move quickly on the Director’s nomination and look forward to his confirmation.”
Crane is nominated to serve as under secretary for Infrastructure at DOE. Confirmation will put him in charge of OCED as well as the Loan Programs Office, the Grid Deployment Office and other parts of the DOE focused on demonstration and deployment. President Joe Biden renominated Crane for that position this Congress after Republicans blocked confirmation in 2022.
Experts who follow the agency closely say DOE needs to staff up on officials with business acumen, like Crane (Energywire, Jan. 27).
Although he served as president and CEO of the utility NRG Energy Inc. from 2003 to 2015 and took the company from Chapter 11 to Fortune 200 status, Crane is a federal government neophyte. In recent years, he was a top official at sustainability investment-focused Pegasus Capital Advisors LP. Decades ago, Crane was a senior vice president at the now-defunct Lehman Brothers Inc., a poster child for the 2008 financial crisis.
The fate of nuclear
Another relative political novice, Kathryn Huff, is running the Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy after the Senate confirmed her last year. There, she will harness her expertise on small modular reactors (SMRs), which many in the administration are looking to as an emissions-free source that could power homes and businesses in the future without the cost and waste challenges that have dogged traditional plants.
Plans to deploy a small modular reactor in Utah got a boost after NuScale Power struck a deal with municipalities in Western states in January to sell the prospective power (Energywire, Jan. 10). NuScale is an SMR developer headquartered in Oregon.
“Our climate crisis requires terawatts of energy transformation, and so there will be plenty of room for gigawatts of advanced Generation III+ nuclear reactors,” Huff said at a Nuclear Innovation Alliance event this month, referring to a type of SMR.
Both traditional plants and SMRs are dogged by cost overruns and delays. The NuScale deal raises the price the company plans to sell the power for to $89 per megawatt-hour, roughly 50 percent above the previous terms it struck with the utilities. The pro-renewables Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis called new cost estimates for the NuScale SMR “eye-popping.”
This year, Huff is also expected to make controversial decisions on whether to award $6 billion in bailout funds to struggling nuclear plants (Energywire, Jan. 30).
Huff has held several positions at DOE since joining the department in 2021, including principal deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy and senior adviser in the secretary’s office.
Her nuclear expertise is rooted in the academic world. Prior to joining DOE, Huff was an assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She received her doctorate in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 2013.
In the middle of SPR wars
A DOE official with more than two decades of experience at the department, Douglas MacIntyre currently is running the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as deputy director of the Office of Petroleum Reserves.
The SPR, a set of caverns that house crude oil near the Gulf of Mexico, became a political football after Biden released an unprecedented 180 million barrels last year to bring down the price at the pump.
On Friday, the House passed legislation to limit the president’s ability to sell SPR crude unless the administration opens up corresponding public lands for drilling. All Democrats but Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) opposed the bill. On Jan. 12, Republicans and Democrats also teamed up to pass legislation in the House to prevent SPR sales to China.
MacIntyre is likely to find himself in the crosshairs of Republicans, who often paint the SPR drawdown as a political decision that weakens national security. The Energy Department also is facing calls to refill the SPR, which is currently about half full at more than 370 million barrels, its lowest level in decades.
“The mission of the Office of Petroleum Reserves is to protect the United States from severe petroleum supply interruptions through the acquisition, storage, distribution, and management of emergency petroleum stocks,” MacIntyre told a Senate committee in December. “In the event of a natural disaster or other national emergency, the U.S. can rely on these emergency stockpiles.”
The department rejected SPR purchase bids in early January because the offers were too high.
The chair’s adviser
While the names of FERC commissioners appear on decisions and rules, agency staff play a pivotal behind-the-scenes role on everything from environmental reviews to safeguarding energy markets against manipulation.
Those who work for the FERC chair are particularly influential, since the chair sets the agenda of commission meetings and chooses which rulemakings and proposals go up for a vote.
At the center of the agency’s current agenda is Ronan Gulstone, whom acting FERC Chair Willie Phillips appointed this month as his chief of staff. In the new role, Gulstone is expected to work closely with the chair and other commissioners, helping to ensure that rulemakings and proposals from the commissioners stay on schedule, said Neil Chatterjee, a former chair of FERC.
Gulstone’s position will likely touch all aspects of FERC’s authorities, from pipeline permitting to cybersecurity standards.
A former legal adviser to Phillips, Gulstone previously worked for Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser; for Washington, D.C.-based natural gas utility Washington Gas; and for Washington Councilmember Kenyan R. McDuffie. Phillips, a Democrat, also has ties to the city’s local government, having served as a commissioner and chair of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia prior to joining FERC in December 2021.
“I’ve gotten to know [Gulstone] a little bit through my relationship with Chairman Phillips. He’s someone the chairman trusts and has a long history with,” Chatterjee said. “I think that’s what Chairman Phillips needs in his chief of staff.”
Transmission for clean energy
In another recent staff shake-up, Phillips named Karin Herzfeld as senior transmission counsel. She will guide the commission’s ongoing efforts to spur the development of more high-voltage power lines and reduce clean energy bottlenecks.
A 10-year veteran of FERC, Herzfeld began her career at the agency as an attorney-adviser. Her more recent roles include as legal adviser to Chatterjee, a Republican, and to Phillips beginning last year.
While working for Phillips, she advised the then-commissioner on transmission and grid connection issues. Prior to that, she was also the lead attorney overseeing compliance plans for Order 2222, a rule issued in 2020 to remove barriers facing small-scale clean energy resources in electric power markets.
Given her experience, Herzfeld is a “perfect person” to help guide the commission on its transmission planning and grid interconnection proposals, said Christy Walsh, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sustainable FERC Project.
“Given the urgency of transmission for the energy transition, we need her expertise on the commission now more than ever,” said Walsh, who worked at FERC for 18 years, including on some projects with Herzfeld.
Law and environmental justice
As FERC’s general counsel, Matthew Christiansen is involved in “virtually everything the commission works on,” said Larry Gasteiger, a former chief of staff at FERC. A big part of the job is keeping commissioners and the chair up-to-speed on legal requirements.
The general counsel can act as a liaison among the chair and other commissioners, or among different offices at FERC, added Gasteiger, who is now executive director of the Wires Group, a trade association that advocates for high-voltage transmission development.
Christiansen was a legal adviser to Richard Glick before the former chair promoted him to his current job in 2021. A spokesperson for Phillips’ office said Christiansen “has done an incredible job” and will help maintain consistency on policy issues at FERC with Glick’s departure.
“It provides some level of continuity in the process and that should help smooth things with the transition,” Gasteiger said.
Notably, Christiansen has also been named as a potential contender for an open commission seat at FERC (Energywire, Jan. 17).
One outstanding question is who will lead FERC’s efforts to incorporate environmental justice and equity in its decisions. Montina Cole, FERC’s former senior counsel for environmental justice and equity, joined the agency in 2021 to help lead that effort at FERC, but she stepped down from the job last month.
FERC is currently soliciting nominations to participate in a roundtable discussion on environmental justice and equity issues on March 29. By that time, Phillips hopes to have hired a new senior counsel for environmental justice and equity, according to the spokesperson for his office.
The Interior Department’s second-in-command, Tommy Beaudreau, will be a key figure in keeping the department on track this year as it tries to carry out the Biden administration’s energy agenda on everything from offshore drilling to new methane regulations.
Beaudreau could have his eyes on several issues. Interior continues to build back its Bureau of Land Management after losing a significant chunk of employees during the Trump administration’s movement of bureau headquarters to Colorado. The massive public lands agency is also juggling major decisions that could shape the energy sector for years — a five-year offshore oil program, ambitious goals to deploy renewable energy on federal lands, ConocoPhillips’ proposed Willow project in northern Alaska and the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the Biden administration is required to hold an oil and gas sale under a congressional mandate by next year.
Alaska-raised Beaudreau started his federal career in the Obama administration to reform a then-dispirited offshore energy agency — the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which would later become the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management with Beaudreau as its first director. He was nominated as Interior deputy secretary by the White House in 2021 as a compromise to GOP lawmakers. Some Republicans said at the time they saw him as less hostile to fossil fuels than a prior Biden pick, though they were not explicit about why he’d won that reputation.
Beaudreau was known to several lawmakers, and prior to rejoining the Interior Department in 2021, Beaudreau was a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP, where he worked with a host of large energy companies, including offshore wind developers, coal firms and oil drillers, according to his financial disclosure documents (E&E Daily, April 23, 2021).
The apparent low level of political hostility towards Beaudreau could prove valuable for the administration with a Republican-controlled House likely to press Biden political appointees on energy issues in the year ahead.
While not always in the spotlight, Beaudreau is also responsible for keeping the sprawling department running behind the scenes for the more public facing Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a responsibility that traditionally falls to the deputy.
A White House liaison
Laura Daniel-Davis has been waiting for more than a year for Senate confirmation as assistant secretary of land and minerals management — a role that would give her authority over Interior’s energy-focused bureaus: the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
But that long delay — sparked by disagreements between the White House and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) over oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters — hasn’t stopped Daniel-Davis from being a significant shaper of policies at those bureaus.
Interior schedules show she is part of an inner circle shaping the Interior Department’s energy decisions with input from the White House. Her fingerprints will be on the final offshore oil and gas leasing plan due out this year — a critical document that will determine how much access the oil industry has to federal stores of fossil fuels beneath the ocean floor.
Earlier this month, the White House renominated Daniel-Davis, who worked for former Interior Secretaries Sally Jewell and Ken Salazar during the Obama administration, for a third time, earning praise from conservation groups (E&E Daily, Jan. 24).
“Her knowledge and experience on America’s public lands are crucial to President Biden’s energy agenda,” said Center for Western Priorities Director Jennifer Rokala in a statement. “This job is simply too important to leave empty for another year.”
Driving the five-year oil plan
As the new director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Elizabeth Klein has recently taken the reins of one of the White House’s most significant energy policies: a five-year plan for offshore drilling.
The bureau’s five-year program due out this year will determine the pace of oil and gas lease sales off the nation’s coasts.
While it is unlikely to match drilling access compared to historic norms, it could maintain ongoing auctions to satisfy a congressional mandate making offshore wind leasing contingent on offshore oil sales. In any case, the oil plan is expected to draw criticism from both oil and gas supporters and climate activists.
Klein was originally nominated to be Haaland’s deputy, but after a flurry of opposition from GOP lawmakers, she took on an advisory role at the Interior Department in the early days of the Biden administration while the deputy position went to Beaudreau. She became BOEM director last month.
In taking over the bureau at such a pivotal moment for offshore drilling, Klein’s decisions potentially could make her a target for GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill (E&E Daily, Jan. 12).
Klein will also be overseeing the rapid-fire activity the Biden administration has planned to advance offshore wind. BOEM is developing new lease sales for wind in the Gulf of Mexico and potentially the Gulf of Maine and continues environmental reviews of over a dozen offshore wind farms. The administration is aiming to reach a target to approve 16 wind farms by 2025. BOEM has so far approved two.
Klein is a former lawyer with New York University’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center and previously worked in several roles at Interior during the Clinton and Obama administrations.