Republicans embrace FERC as an ally against Biden energy agenda

By Nico Portuondo | 03/20/2024 06:37 AM EDT

GOP legislation would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission new power to advance fossil fuel infrastructure. Agency nominees will be on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

FERC meeting.

Members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in November 2023. @FERC/X

Republicans it seems couldn’t be happier with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission these days, so much so that they’re hoping to give the agency even more power to roll back President Joe Biden’s climate agenda.

Several of the most prominent energy bills from Republicans in both the House and Senate — from promoting liquefied natural gas exports to encouraging permits for new pipelines — have a common theme: Give FERC members sweeping authority to overturn key climate initiatives and thwart EPA and Department of Energy actions.

Importantly, Republicans see the agency as more insulated from Biden administration political meddling.


“There have been attempts by the administration to give a lot of power to the agencies like DOE and in particular EPA,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “But FERC is just less political. By its makeup it’s less political and by the powers that are granted it.”

The push from Republicans comes as FERC is poised to release a transmission plan that many Democrats — and even some Republicans — hope will connect renewable energy to the grid. On this front, however, most Republicans are circumspect on granting the agency new authority over the states.

Amid all this, Republicans are also looking forward to a host of nominees to the commission, who will be getting a Senate hearing Thursday. They hope that FERC could be a guardian for the foreseeable future against Biden’s initiatives to wind down the use of fossil fuels.

Two of the three new potential FERC commissioners have a history of supporting domestic fossil fuels, to varying degrees.

Republican nominee Lindsay See previously defended the Mountain Valley gas pipeline as West Virginia solicitor general. Democrat David Rosner has backed increased LNG exports.

The commission will continue to be led by Democratic Chair Willie Phillips. He has led a glut of approvals for natural gas infrastructure projects, like a 500-mile Texas-to-Mexico pipeline, reversing former Chair Richard Glick’s effort to put greater regulatory scrutiny of such projects.

Congressional Democrats and environmental groups are increasingly worried about the agency’s actions on fossil fuel projects and its potential new commissioners.

Even if Republicans fail in their bills to broaden the agency’s powers, as is likely under a divided Congress, they still see FERC as jeopardizing emissions reductions stemming from Biden’s climate agenda.

“FERC is a completely captured agency,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a climate hawk. “The way it operates right now, it is a rubber stamp for fossil fuel projects.”

‘Exclusive authority’

Republicans have taken numerous steps to empower FERC in the past few months.

One bicameral effort that recently passed the House would undo the administration’s pause on LNG exports by giving the commission “exclusive authority” to approve natural gas export projects, without the Department of Energy having to make national interest determinations.

Another bill — the “GRID Act,” H.R. 6185, from Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security — would give FERC effective veto power over any actions from other agencies to ensure it has no adverse effect on grid reliability.

And prominent senators like Environment and Public Works ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Energy and Natural Resources ranking member John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) are pushing FERC in letters and behind the scenes to “improve” EPA’s controversial power plant rule.

When asked why they were pushing for FERC to have more authority, many Republicans said the agency’s inherent independent nature and focus on grid reliability make it a better fit to make critical rulings on energy issues.

“FERC is handling the permitting of pipelines, transmission lines and making sure that there’s interconnectivity,” said Duncan. “Reliability and affordability: That’s their vision.”

That’s in large part due to the bipartisan nature of the commission itself, which is controlled by Democratic appointees in a 3-2 split. The president picks the chair and determines which party gets the majority, if the Senate goes along.

“In terms of transmission and energy mix, [FERC] is really important for us,” Capito said. Moreover, she said, the agency has crucially served as a “bottleneck” on Biden administration actions, “sometimes undoing decisions.”

Even climate-minded Democrats acknowledge that the agency’s recent glut of natural gas pipeline and terminal approvals may have more to do with the agency’s mission, rather than the whims of commissioners.

I think [the natural gas approvals] are a reflection of underlying law, more than a reflection of the makeup of the firm,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

‘Our guy’s in charge’

Such a viewpoint may underplay Chair Phillips’ impact, especially on how Republicans view the agency.

“We always like it better when our guy’s in charge,” Cramer put simply.

At one moment in time, it seemed that the agency could reverse course on its long history of greenlighting natural gas projects and jeopardize its standing with fossil fuel-inclined lawmakers.

Under the Biden administration, Glick, the former Democratic chair, led unprecedented supplemental environmental reviews for some natural gas proposals to ensure that new projects are in the public interest given climate considerations. Republican lawmakers argued such reviews led to “irregular” delays.

That eventually led to a landmark effort to develop an interim pipeline policy proposal that would have directed the agency to take a more stringent approach to considering gas infrastructure’s impacts on climate and communities already burdened by high pollution.

Glick paid dearly for the proposal. After Barrasso said lawmakers “should be prepared to use every tool at our proposal to clean up this mess,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) sunk Glick’s bid to remain on the commission.

It’s been a marked turnaround with Phillips at the helm. Republicans and Manchin have heaped on praise for his comparatively rapid rulemaking in approving new natural gas projects.

In February, FERC approved the Saguaro Connector pipeline — proposed by Oneok — that would run about 500 miles and transport 2.8 billion cubic feet of gas per day from Texas to the coast of Mexico and a three-year extension to complete the Driftwood pipeline and LNG terminal proposed by Tellurian in Louisiana. They come after several natural gas infrastructure approvals in 2023.

“FERC has permitted more natural gas infrastructure in just the last four months than in each of the prior two years,” Manchin said to Phillips at a Senate ENR hearing in 2023.

Willie Phillips, chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Willie Phillips on Capitol Hill. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Rosner panned by green groups

Now with new commissioners on the way, Republicans think the agency could play a critical role in dampening efforts by the Biden administration to cut down on domestic carbon emissions by continuing to approve new natural gas infrastructure.

“When FERC people [appear before Congress] and I ask if we need more or less power in the country, they say more power,” said senior House Energy and Commerce member Bob Latta (R-Ohio). “That’s not the same thing agencies like EPA tell us.”

Republican nominee See argued on behalf of red states and coal interests in West Virginia v. EPA, a landmark 2022 Supreme Court decision, and defended the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection over a water certification the agency issued for the Mountain Valley pipeline.

Rosner, a FERC staffer who for two years was a detailee to Manchin, has been panned by some environmental groups due to his comments arguing against the negative impact LNG exports would have on domestic energy prices during his time at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“The only thing worse than a Joe Manchin staffer on FERC is a Joe Manchin staffer who used to work for a fossil fuel front group,” said Friends of the Earth climate and energy deputy director Lukas Ross.

David Rosner and FERC logo.
David Rosner is the front-runner for the open seat at FERC, according to several people who spoke with E&E News. | LinkedIn (Rosner); FERC/Facebook (logo)

Most lawmakers have refrained from supporting the nominees until the confirmation process starts, but Barrasso had effusive praise for See’s work and more tepid support for the actions Rosner could enact during his potential time as commissioner.

“[See] is well-positioned to ensure that FERC faithfully adheres to its mission of supporting the abundant supply of American natural gas and electricity,” said Barrasso. “Rosner has served as a detailee on the committee for nearly two years and has worked constructively with my staff during that time.”

Upcoming FERC decisions, which the new commissioners could potentially weigh in on, will be critical in determining if Republicans continue to see the agency in a positive light.

The pending transmission rule set to be finalized by FERC in the coming weeks could stoke the anger of Republicans who do not want to see state authority superseded regarding new interstate transmission lines.

“Any rule that they would make, in my view, should require a FERC process for determination and, again, not lean on DOE or EPA,” said Cramer.

Republicans, however, aren’t slowing down in their legislating to give the agency more power. A bill to reauthorize the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, H.R. 7655, recently passed a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee and would give FERC more overriding authority over other agencies to push through new pipeline permits.

Climate-minded Democrats will be watching closely to see how Phillips and a potential new commission will affect the Biden administration’s emission-cutting goals.

“I’m concerned about a number of decisions [the agency has made],” said Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “I just want to make sure what we worked for in the Finance Committee and my colleagues worked for reaches its full potential.”