From doughnut-filler to chairwoman, Greenwire's Northey profiles FERC's Cheryl LaFleur

After presiding over her final public meeting as chairwoman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this week, what is next for Cheryl LaFleur? On today's The Cutting Edge, Greenwire reporter Hannah Northey discusses her new feature on LaFleur and her uphill climb to becoming chairwoman.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to The Cutting Edge. FERC Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur presiding over her final public meeting as chair this week. In a new Greenwire profile, Hannah Northey explores her journey to becoming chair and previews her next steps. Hannah, LaFleur's had many jobs, as a doughnut filler, news clipper, produce counter attendant. What brought her to the utility world?

Hannah Northey: Right. Well, she actually grew up in a blue-collar, rural Massachusetts town, Framingham, and she had a fast-tracked high school experience. She went to Princeton in three years, then she graduated from Harvard with a law degree, and it was in 1986 that she actually met Samuel Huntington, who was the CEO of a New England utility. And after she met him, she decided it was a really good career change and she jumped into the utility sector from the legal world.

Monica Trauzzi: So as chair, she's had some critics, and you report that she was initially taken aback by the level of personal attacks she received when she became chairwoman. What about her background, though, has made her so resilient and able to withstand the criticism that she did receive?

Hannah Northey: Yeah, it was interesting during the interviews to discover that she did work her way up so quickly from a small town, from Framingham, that she had a shortened time at the university, at Princeton University, but also when she was a utility executive, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and that's a lot for the leader of a company to handle. Also, on her first day of the job overseeing the distribution portion of that utility, there was an explosion at a substation, and jumped into that for the next two years and revamped the safety program, got to know the victims' families. So I think there's a little -- you know, there's a toughness that a lot of sources say she has.

Monica Trauzzi: Former FERC Chair Jon Wellinghoff told you that the short nine-month period LaFleur had as chair made it almost impossible to make a significant policy footprint on FERC. What stands out as her most significant accomplishments?

Hannah Northey: Yeah. She was put into a pretty tough position with a nine-month stint as formal chair. She was acting chair before that, and you know, Senator Reid went to The Wall Street Journal and said that he wanted to block her to be chair, and so it's -- I think what Wellinghoff was saying, it's tough to push through big policy directives. To work with the staff takes a lot of time, but I mean, she -- again, sources say she's done a really good job with her limited amount of time. She didn't have the luxury of time. She stepped up conversations with the EPA as the Clean Power Plan was put into effect. She responded to pressure from Congress to, you know, what's FERC doing. Technical conferences are being held across the country right now. She's discussing a safety reliability valve. You know, under her watch, we also had the rule for NERC, the grid overseers to quickly beef up a physical security for the grid. And also when she became the chair, FERC was kind of thrown into this -- these Senate hearings about a data leak to The Wall Street Journal, and she handled that. She went up and revamped all of the information sharing at the agency.

Monica Trauzzi: So what did you find most interesting as you reported on her for this profile?

Hannah Northey: She -- while you don't really see it from the protests or from the editorial out there or -- I think you can see it at the FERC meetings, but she's really funny. As John Rowe from Exelon said, she's a stitch, and there are some anecdotes in the story about, you know, moments when her personality really shines through. And being from a small town in Michigan, I was impressed with how quickly she moved up. It's pretty impressive to get through high school early and Princeton within three years. She graduated as one of the first females from Princeton University.

Monica Trauzzi: She said she feels lucky to have had her time as chair. Did she give you any indication of what's coming next for her?

Hannah Northey: No, she didn't. She's going to continue serving through 2019 as a commissioner, and Norman Bay, who was formerly the enforcement chief, is going to step up as chair and -- on April 15th. So even though she's not going to be chair, she's going to be a critical voice, even as the Clean Power Plan, you know, is crafted. The final rule comes out this summer. She's going -- people are going to look to her to figure out well, what's going to happen with this safety reliability valve? What's going to happen with this rule? So, I mean, she's a really important vote.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. Thank you, Hannah. It's a great read, and it's running in Monday's Greenwire.

Hannah Northey: That's right, yep.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. Thank you for coming on the show.

Hannah Northey: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: More Cutting Edge coming next Friday. We'll see you then.

[End of Audio]



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