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Biden to tap Phillips to head US FERC until permanent chair is confirmed: WH official


Viewed as more moderate commissioner

Background includes NERC, NARUC

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US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Willie Phillips will lead FERC until President Joe Biden is able to nominate and win Senate confirmation of a permanent chair, a White House official said Jan. 3.

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The official, who required anonymity, said in an email that Phillips will serve as acting chair, pending the nomination and confirmation of a permanent head of the independent commission.

Outgoing Chairman Richard Glick, meanwhile, has offered his congratulations to Phillips.

"The Commission is in good hands as our nation continues the transition to the clean energy future," Glick said on Twitter.

The decision puts at the agency's helm, at least temporarily, a former District of Columbia regulator who has emphasized energy system reliability. It is not uncommon for the White House to tap an interim chair while it pursues more permanent options. Phillips' current term expires June 30, 2026.

FERC now has a 2-2 split between Democrats and Republicans, with Glick stepping down as Congress adjourned Jan. 3.

The shift in FERC's makeup arrived as a major update to FERC's gas project review policies has been stalled in draft form for about nine months amid differences over matters such as climate change. The natural gas sector also is closely watching whether FERC will be able to advance projects in a timely manner with a 2-2 makeup.

The change in leadership occurred after the late-December severe winter storm forced multiple electric system operators to cut power in response to record-high demand caused by widespread sub-zero temperatures.

The former chairman of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia, Phillips joined FERC in December 2021. He has frequently emphasized the need to focus on electric system reliability, including grid stability in the face of extreme weather events, cyber risks and gas-electric coordination challenges.

His background includes serving as assistant general counsel for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, as a board member for National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Organization of PJM States, as well as president of the Mid-Atlantic Conference of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

Gas project reviews

When it comes to gas project reviews, Phillips has been viewed as potentially a more moderate choice than the other remaining Democrat, Allison Clements.

After first siding with fellow Democrats in votes on increasing climate considerations in gas project decisions, Phillips has charted a more cautious, bipartisan approach since blowback on the policies prompted FERC to convert them to draft statements.

For instance, Phillips at times joined with Republican Commissioner Mark Christie in stating that FERC lacked an analytical tool to assess the extent of a project's greenhouse gas emissions impacts.

But Phillips also has expressed an interest in improving the commission's approach to environmental justice on multiple occasions, even as he consistently voted to advance projects. For instance, he expressed "deep reservations" about negative visual impacts of the Commonwealth LNG facility on the nearby town of Cameron.

Clements, like Glick, has worked to increase climate and environmental justice considerations in natural gas project reviews. And Clements, an energy lawyer whose background included working for the Natural Resources Defense Council, also has played a lead role in helping launch a new Office of Public Participation at FERC.

Power views

Clements and Phillips hold similar views to Glick on power-related matters.

At FERC's July monthly open meeting, Clements stressed the need to compensate flexible generation resources as the nation continues to transition to more variable sources of renewable energy such as wind and solar. FERC is currently considering comments filed under an administrative docket (AD21-10) on wholesale power market reforms opened shortly after Glick was appointed chairman in January 2021.

During the meeting, Clements and Phillips also expressed support for requiring a minimum level of interregional electric transmission capability. In October, FERC staff convened a workshop on how such a standard might be implemented. The idea already has broad support from state regulators on a joint federal-state task force convened under Glick's leadership.