Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee’s surprise demotion stemmed, at least in part, from his unwillingness to go along with the Trump administration’s governmentwide edicts against diversity training.
"Guilty as charged," Chatterjee confirmed to E&E News by text message this afternoon. Two other sources also said diversity trainings were a reason behind the power shift.
Observers figured the White House yanked Chatterjee from the chairman position because of his embrace of a carbon pricing proposal and willingness to work on market-based approaches for renewable energy to better compete on the grid.
Chatterjee, an Indian American, has been vocal about joining nationwide calls for racial justice following numerous incidents of police brutality.
"The instances of brutality we’ve seen in places like #Minnesota & #Georgia are as devastating as they are unjust," Chatterjee wrote in a May 29 Twitter post. "These appalling actions against our neighbors & fellow #Americans are not representative of the land of the free."
Earlier this summer, the White House moved to limit diversity training at agencies after complaints emerged that the seminars used terms like "white privilege."
The move has prompted congressional backlash, although DOE and other environment agencies have embraced the change.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. FERC aides were not immediately available for comment.
Chatterjee himself said his demotion may have stemmed from actions to promote FERC’s involvement with a carbon tax, including hosting a technical conference on the issue on Sept. 30 (Energywire, Nov. 6).
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) came to the former chairman’s defense this afternoon in a statement of support.
The statement from Pallone — who at times has been very critical of actions taken by FERC under Chatterjee’s tenure as chairman — came as part of a broader defense of climate policy actions at the commission.
"His sudden removal as Chairman for merely starting a dialogue on markets and climate change, while working across the aisle to preserve state prerogatives on distributed generation, is as petty as it is wrong," Pallone said in his statement.
FERC announced the change in leadership in a news release late yesterday evening. A former energy aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Chatterjee had served as chairman since the beginning of 2019, a nearly two-year stint that saw a rash of FERC decisions to approve fossil fuel infrastructure like liquefied natural gas exports.
Chatterjee said he embraced FERC’s role in overseeing a state-driven carbon tax as part of his market approach to regulating energy.
That same approach resulted in changes to PJM Interconnection LLC’s capacity market that would make it more difficult for renewable and nuclear energy receiving state subsidies to participate in the grid operator’s markets. That earned both praise and jeers from renewable energy advocates.
"Like many in the energy sector, we were surprised to see the sudden change in leadership at the FERC last night," Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said in a statement just after Pallone’s.
"While we have not always agreed with all of his actions, we’ve appreciated Chairman Chatterjee’s accessibility and willingness to engage with ACORE and our members."
In his place, the White House named conservative member James Danly, who joined the commission in March after a contentious Senate confirmation fight.
Danly opposed measures backed by Chatterjee and Democrat Richard Glick to open up markets to aggregated distributed energy resources as well as the carbon tax embrace.
Pallone criticized Danly as "a commissioner with little experience in the energy industry and views far outside the mainstream of both parties on energy policy."
"Taking this action as he continues to fall behind in electoral college votes is wholly inappropriate," Pallone said of the Trump administration. "Clearly, FERC needs to stop work immediately on all major controversial activities until a new president is sworn in."
With Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on the verge of victory, Danly’s chairmanship tenure may only last until Jan. 20.
That would include at least two commission meetings as well as the potential to finalize some lingering issues he agrees with Chatterjee on.
Chatterjee said that it was his intention to continue on the commission for his tenure. That would go to June 30, 2021.