‘What the FERC!’ Republican group drags agency into campaign

By Miranda Willson | 05/18/2022 07:38 AM EDT

A six-figure advertising campaign targeting U.S. senators reflects increased politicization of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, analysts say.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) with other lawmakers during a press conference on climate action last year.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) with other lawmakers during a press conference on climate action last year. Francis Chung/E&E News

A Republican-aligned political advocacy group has launched a six-figure digital advertising campaign targeting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Democrats in swing states, thrusting an agency that has traditionally been reserved for policy debates further into the political spotlight.

Paid for by the Common Sense Leadership Fund, the ads represent the first phase in a “sustained six-month” campaign to draw attention to policies from FERC and the Biden administration that the group says have contributed to high energy costs. Critics say the group’s messaging is misleading.

A national version of the ads, with images of Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), are running on Google, Facebook and YouTube in Washington, D.C., the group said. Similar ads featuring images of Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) are running on the same platforms in New Hampshire and Nevada, respectively.


“What the FERC! Biden’s bureaucrats are intentionally raising your energy prices. Tell Democrats you’re sick of high gas prices,” reads the ad text, alongside a picture of a gasoline pump.

The campaign seems to reflect the increased political focus directed at FERC, said former Republican FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee.

“I’ve never seen FERC in a political campaign ad before, so it’s fascinating,” Chatterjee said. “This is about FERC being more on the radar.”

The agency is tasked with approving large energy projects, such as interstate natural gas pipelines and hydroelectric dams. It also oversees the bulk power system, but it does not have oversight of gasoline prices.

Members of Congress cannot be responsible for the actions of FERC, given its status as an independent agency, Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, said in response to the ads. He called the campaign “ridiculous.”

“[FERC has] very limited rate jurisdiction over oil pipelines — but no ability to impose environmental standards on oil pipelines (like they do for natural gas), so this attempted link of gasoline prices and FERC is simply fraudulent,” Slocum said in an email.

In response to the criticism, Colin Reed, founding partner of South & Hill Strategies, a consulting firm working with the political fund, said the gas pumps represent energy to Americans “who are suffering record high prices across the board.”

“If this is the best argument for defending the Biden Administration’s anti-energy policies, we look forward to the debate,” Reed said in an email.

Hassan and Cortez Masto are both first-term senators running for reelection in what political analysts say could be a tough year for Democrats. POLITICO predicted last month that the November Senate race in New Hampshire “leans Democratic,” while the race for Cortez Masto’s Senate seat is a “toss-up.”

Hassan’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Cortez Masto’s campaign said the senator has “consistently fought to lower gas prices for Nevada families.”

“[Cortez Masto] will continue to call out Big Oil corporations and hold them accountable for rising costs,” Sigalle Reshef, the campaign’s spokesperson, said in an email.

FERC and the ‘green agenda’?

FERC declined to comment on the new ads, but they come as the five-person commission has already been in the political spotlight.

Last year, for example, Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) launched a campaign focused on FERC’s role in setting policies that affect renewable energy and climate change (Energywire, July 29, 2021).

More recently, the commission issued a pair of policies in February that would modify the process for approving new natural gas projects, adding new considerations for climate change, environmental justice communities and landowners affected by pipelines. Part of the intention was to ensure that FERC would weigh all benefits and costs before permitting new natural gas pipelines, as well as to make FERC permits more legally durable, according to Democratic Chair Richard Glick (Energywire, Feb. 18).

But two weeks after FERC’s Democratic majority approved the policies, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the issue. Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) called the decisions “a shortsighted attack on fossil fuel resources.”

The following month, FERC turned the policies into “drafts” for further consideration (Energywire, March 25).

According to Reed, the proposed policies were an impetus behind the ads. Largely, the Biden administration has relied on FERC “to stop energy projects and fulfill the green agenda that has been stymied by fellow Democrats in Congress,” noting Manchin’s criticisms.

Travis Fisher, president and CEO of the Electricity Consumers Resource Council, who also served as an adviser to former Republican FERC Commissioner Bernard McNamee, said he is concerned about the impacts of FERC’s proposed pipeline policies on electricity prices and reliability. But those policy debates should be addressed in “the relevant FERC docket,” not through political ads, Fisher said.

Still, Chatterjee — a former aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — said the point of the ads may be to show that FERC’s actions “are tied to high energy prices.”

“I think people think it’s an effective political argument to make right now that it’s policy decisions that have contributed to high energy prices,” Chatterjee said. “It’s likely to be a potent argument this fall on the campaign trail, because energy prices sadly are going to remain high for the foreseeable future.”

As a tax-exempt social welfare organization, the Common Sense Leadership Fund is not required to disclose its funding sources or its spending. It has previously run ads against the “Build Back Better Act,” and it is spending “multiple six figures” on the latest round of ads, Reed said.

Jared Leopold, a Democratic consultant and co-founder of Evergreen Action, said the ads will be ineffective, given their use of the FERC acronym, with which many voters are unfamiliar.

“The facts are clear: gas prices are increasing because of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and greedy fossil fuel corporations, not a non-binding proposed rule at FERC,” Leopold said in an email. “Senators Hassan and Cortez-Masto have taken strong stands in support of the Build Back Better Act’s climate investments, which would save Americans average of $500 in energy costs and reduce our reliance on petrostates like Russia. That’s a great record to run on.”

This story also appears in E&E Daily.