New Trump-chosen Indian-American chair of independent energy agency promises to avoid politics

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Neil Chatterjee (Courtesy: Twitter)

Neil Chatterjee, the new chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has pledged to keep politics out of the agency’s decisions, including high-profile issues about whether to prop up coal and nuclear plants that have been beset by competition from renewables and natural gas.

Chatterjee told reporters Wednesday he has a different outlook since he first joined the commission thanks to the influence of the outgoing chairman Kevin McIntyre, who gave up the chairman’s role last week citing severe health problems. McIntyre was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the summer of 2017.

Chatterjee had been a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., before joining the commission as acting chairman in 2017 and he was openly sympathetic to President Donald Trump and the Energy Department’s plan to aide ailing coal and nuclear plants and prevent them from shutting down. Trump has vowed to do something and one of the president’s biggest contributors, coal tycoon Robert Murray, has lobbied hard for a change.

However, the five-member commission voted unanimously to reject the Energy Department’s first plan, and it now anticipates a new plan. It is also conducting a study of reliability and resilience of the electricity grid, two factors the Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s team cited in its initial effort. Thousands of individuals, environmental groups, corporations and others have filed comments to the commission.

“When I first came to the commission last fall, coming from a partisan legislative role in which I worked on behalf of my boss to fight against the retirement of coal-fired generation. . . you know initially I was sympathetic to Secretary Perry’ s proposal because of my concern for these rural communities, because of my concern about what the retirement of nuclear units might mean for mitigating carbon emissions,” Chatterjee said Wednesday in a briefing for reporters at FERC’s offices.

“But as I evolved into the role, I recognize that is not part of our record. That doesn’t figure into the statute that governs us.”

Chatterjee added: “I had to make a decision based on the record before us” and that any ruling by the commission would have to be grounded in that record.

FERC has been in the spotlight an unusual amount over the past year, not only because of the issue of subsidizing coal and nuclear plants but also because its approval is needed for the construction of interstate natural gas pipelines and for liquefied natural gas export terminals. Moreover, while a key regulatory agency for pipelines and electricity grids that cross state borders, FERC must come to grips with local and state initiatives in many places to boost solar and wind power generation.

The commission is currently down to just four members, divided equally between Democrats and Republicans. Many issues could end in deadlock, which would prevent those issues from moving forward.

Trump has nominated Bernard McNamee to fill the empty slot, but he awaits confirmation by the Senate. Currently working as a political appointee at the Energy Department, McNamee had defended the department’s initial plan to subsidy coal and nuclear energy in front of the Senate.

Chatterjee said he would try to move ahead without waiting for McNamee. “There’s just too much on our plates to wait for the unpredictable Senate confirmation process,” he said.

The commission is also examining cybersecurity issues, something Chatterjee said he was working on closely with Democratic commissioner Richard Glick.

When Chatterjee voted against the DOE’s proposal to aide coal and nuclear, he said that the “proceeding speaks to the prudence of considering, as soon as practicable, whether interim measures may be needed to avoid near-term bulk power system resilience challenges that could result from the rapid, unprecedented changes in our generation resource mix.”

But he said that the issues seemed more complicated now.

“For me the complexity of these questions weigh heavily on me,” he said. “Because I am very pro-market, I also believe fundamentally in state rights and the ability for states to make local decisions about their energy futures. The reality is that these two constructs that I believe in my core are colliding right now. States are taking actions regarding their local generation mix that are having a broader impact on competitive markets.”

The former McConnell aide repeatedly praised McIntyre. A fellow Republican and former Jones Day lawyer who had done a lot of work before FERC on behalf of corporations prior to becoming chairman, McIntyre publicly differed from Trump administration officials who suggested declaring a state of emergency to help protect coal and nuclear plants.

“He could not be more strenuous in saying that politics should not be allowed to interfere with the work of the commission,” Chatterjee said, “and that has really helped me grow in my role as I’ve made the transition from formerly partisan legislative aide to independent regulator.”

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