Powelson warns against politics creeping into FERC’s work

By Rod Kuckro | 08/10/2018 07:33 AM EDT

Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Robert Powelson received going-away gifts at his last FERC meeting in July.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Robert Powelson received going-away gifts at his last FERC meeting in July. @FERCPowelson/Twitter

The post-Powelson era begins today at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, leaving the agency with just four commissioners and the possibility of evenly split, no-decision, 2-2 votes on contentious natural gas pipeline and electricity market matters.

But departing Commissioner Robert Powelson, a Republican, believes concerns about such outcomes are unfounded because of the "collegiality" among the remaining commissioners and their staffs.

His departure will leave FERC with two Republicans, Chairman Kevin McIntyre and Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, and two Democrats, Commissioners Cheryl LaFleur and Richard Glick.


Still, in recent months FERC repeatedly has split 3-2 along party lines on key decisions, most having to do with gas pipelines.

"My leaving early does not create a quorum problem, so let’s put that off the table. You can still get to three [votes] because you have four people," he said in an interview.

"So it’s very incumbent upon [them] allowing the record to be developed," he said. And having just four members may lead to "greater horse trading," he added.

As to the 3-2 votes, Powelson said it’s "nice to have 5-0 votes, but this isn’t Utopia here. There’s people who have widely held beliefs and defend the righteousness of their position. But at the end of the day, I think the demonstration of collegiality of the commission and the independence of it remains intact. So 3-2 votes? That’s democracy."

Powelson warns against allowing politics to creep into deliberations of the commission, which has traditionally practiced independence from outside political pressure and made decisions based on a defensible legal record.

"I don’t make any decision based on the fact that I’m a lifelong Republican. I have a mean independent streak in me," Powelson said.

There is no telling how long it will take the Senate to confirm a new commissioner. Many veteran FERC observers believe that politics are likely to push action on a new commissioner until early 2019 (Energywire, July 23).

Replacement ideas

Chosen by President Trump in May 2017 to fill a vacancy at FERC, Powelson is moving on to become president and CEO of the National Association of Water Companies, the lobby for private water utilities.

He leaves FERC just shy of one year’s service, the shortest tenure of any commissioner in the agency’s history.

He was the only member of the commission who had served as a state regulator, and that is why he thinks the White House should replace him with someone who shares a similar background as a state regulator. "I still have that states’ rights DNA in me," he said in an earlier interview.

Since 1990, 12 of 21 members of FERC previously have served as state utility regulators, and rarely has the commission not had at least one member with that background.

Powelson was formerly chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and as recently as 2017, he was president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

At its recent summer meeting, NARUC passed a resolution urging the administration to fill Powelson’s seat with someone with experience as a state regulator.

"I just will tell you that it’s critically important that whoever replaces me understands the mission of the FERC. You’re not here to do politics. You’re here to be an independent thought leader. You want to work well with your colleagues to get things done. You need to stand for something; you can’t be a wet noodle," Powelson said.

"That being said, I think the White House would be well-served to have a very competent state regulator come in and be part of this organization," he said.

"You need someone with a proven track record, with the ethical integrity," who will "stay away from using political dogma to drive outcomes. It could have really bad unintended consequences for markets," he said.

"You put the wrong person here, and I can tell you what that looks like."

For now, there is no named replacement for Powelson, but Wednesday a report from Politico noted that Bernard McNamee is the White House pick to succeed Powelson.

McNamee, a Trump political appointee, has since June been executive director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Policy.

In addition to serving at DOE in 2017, McNamee worked in the Texas attorney general’s office, on the staff of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and at the Virginia attorney general’s office — all political positions.