Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson has a similar style to President Trump.
Powelson, who last week was nominated by Trump to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is not afraid to speak his mind, even if it means veering into politically incorrect territory, like when he said in March that pipeline opponents were engaged in a "jihad."
He’s also OK with standing up to (and putting down) more established political figures, such as when he criticized New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for his state’s cautious approach on pipeline permitting or Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) for his support of a hydraulic fracturing ban.
But under the brash approach is an intelligent, well-qualified regulator who has aspired to leadership roles at every step in his career, say friends and supporters.
Powelson got his start working at chambers of commerce in Pennsylvania, first the Delaware County Chamber and then Chester County’s. After 14 years as president and CEO at the latter, he was nominated by Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell to the Public Utility Commission in 2008. He led the PUC as chairman for four years under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
He is also the current president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, a position that has served as a pipeline to the federal commission in recent years. If confirmed, Powelson would be the third NARUC president to move to FERC since 2012.
Powelson is not a fan of the Clean Power Plan and instead favors "market-based decarbonization," which he says has been responsible for power plant emission reductions in Pennsylvania. He is an advocate for states’ rights and supports an "all of the above," hybrid approach to energy generation.
Another area of similarity between Powelson and Trump is that Powelson is willing to talk about and advocate for less popular approaches that might challenge conventional wisdom.
An example is when he expressed support in 2015 for decoupling, or separating utilities’ electricity sales from their revenues. The idea is to remove disincentives for utilities to encourage conservation and energy efficiency measures, which under the traditional system would decrease sales — and revenues. In a decoupled system, utilities could structure their rates to reflect the actual cost of maintaining infrastructure, rather than on how much electricity customers take from the grid.
The practice has been supported by environmentalists but is generally opposed by consumer advocates and utilities and has been adopted in some form in 23 states — but not Pennsylvania.
"Personally, I think PA needs to come out of the stone ages here," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2015.
‘Extremely pro-natural gas’
Despite his openness to innovation, Powelson is seen by some in Pennsylvania, which one observer called a "very pro-industry state when it comes to the regulatory system," as overly friendly to the companies he has been tasked with regulating.
"He is extremely pro-natural gas, to the point where I have to question whether he would be objective enough to really sort of look at the harm that is done by various natural gas infrastructure proposals," said Joe Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council.
"His jihadist comment, I think, is an excellent reflection of how he sees any opposition to moving ahead with natural gas. He’s the epitome of Sarah Palin’s ‘drill, baby, drill,’" Minott said.
Speaking to gas industry representatives at Pennsylvania’s Upstream PA conference March 21, Powelson made the "jihad" comment in reference to anti-pipeline activists who had picketed the homes of FERC commissioners in 2016, according to StateImpact.
"The jihad has begun," he said. "At the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, groups actually show up at commissioners’ homes to make sure we don’t get this gas to market. How irresponsible is that?"
Powelson later acknowledged his choice of words was inappropriate.
But the incident remains a jarring symbol for people like Lynda Farrell, who directs the Pipeline Safety Coalition in Pennsylvania.
"I would say anyone who characterizes landowners and civilians seeking to protect their rights and their quality of life as jihadists should not serve in public office," she said. "You don’t make that kind of a statement as a slip of the tongue."
Supporters of Powelson disagree with that characterization.
"Looking at one flash in time I don’t think is a fair analysis of Rob. There are plenty of times where he has spoken out clearly and candidly and critically of industry, the people that we’re regulating," said John Coleman, who has served with Powelson on the Pennsylvania PUC since 2010.
"In his view, if you’re violating what he sees as the rules of engagement, you’re going to hear from him," Coleman said.
From NARUC to FERC
Unlike Kevin McIntyre, a likely pick to lead the energy regulatory agency whose Jones Day colleague Don McGahn worked on the Trump campaign and landed a key job as White House counsel, Powelson does not appear to have concrete personal ties to the president.
He also does not have the congressional connections that fellow nominee Neil Chatterjee, a longtime energy aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), can use as the confirmation process advances.
It’s possible Powelson caught the attention of the White House during the transition. NARUC leaders had what he called an "intense dialogue" with the administration’s transition team, in the form of a call with Trump’s energy transition leader, American Energy Alliance President Thomas Pyle (Energywire, Feb 1).
In the call and a follow-up letter to Pyle, Powelson emphasized updates to infrastructure and called on the president to reduce "federal overreach" on energy issues including generation resource allocation, net metering and electric transmission siting authority.
The emphasis on states’ rights is an important one to Powelson and others he has worked with, some of whom are celebrating the potential addition of a state regulator to the federal body.
"We always want to make sure that FERC appreciates what we believe as a policy matter are firmly within our purview as state officials and state regulators," said Richard Mroz, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.
"Sometimes a particular state perspective can get lost in very complex issues, with a lot of intervenors, a lot of parties. I just think it’s good to know that someone there, a commissioner, will still be mindful of what is important to state commissions and ultimately to the consumers in our states," Mroz said.
Kevin Hughes, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, said Powelson has "a keen appreciation for the role and responsibility of states to ensure that their citizens have access to reliable and affordable power."
Powelson said in February that he thought state regulators would take leadership roles as Trump appointees in agencies. In one case, at least, that prediction was prescient.
In another interview, Powelson said he saw a "very clear edict" in his dealings with the Trump administration. "We’re going to invest in infrastructure, and we are going to do it in a very efficient manner, and with respect to environmental protection, obviously," he said.
The overlap between his priorities and Trump’s is likely not coincidental, some observers say.
"I had heard that he was lobbying pretty hard for this. I think he was able to persuade the Trump administration that he was able to reflect their values when it comes to regulating," said Minott.