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Affordability, states' rights top of mind for new Republican FERC commissioner

SNL Image

Commissioner Mark Christie

Source: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Mark Christie, the newest Republican to join the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, during an exclusive Feb. 3 interview, presented himself as a fierce defender of states' rights and staunch advocate for keeping consumers' costs down.

Christie was sworn in Jan. 4 following a nearly 17-year tenure as a state regulator with the Virginia State Corporation Commission, during which he spent one term as chairman.

Against the backdrop of ambitious calls for transmission buildout and other initiatives to combat climate change, Christie said as a FERC member his top priorities will be ensuring a reliable supply of power and protecting consumers from paying too much for that reliable electricity.

"A common topic over the last several years among state regulators … has been the rising cost of transmission in consumers' bills," Christie said. He added that as a former state regulator responsible for approving retail electricity bills, he could attest to transmission being "a fast-rising component" of those bills.

"So my view is anything that gets done on transmission, we have to remember that it's customers that end up paying the bills, and we have to be very sensitive to the costs," Christie said.

Christie's comments come as FERC faces growing calls to reform interregional transmission planning requirements for the grid operators it oversees and to reestablish "backstop" siting authority for interstate power lines. Expanding the U.S. electric grid with more high-voltage power lines has also been seen as essential to achieving President Joe Biden's goal of fully decarbonizing the nation's power sector by 2035.

Christie, however, cautioned that as a state regulator he experienced the public backlash that major transmission proposals can produce. He recounted proceedings in Virginia where "hundreds of people, thousands of people spoke up, particularly on power lines."

Different views on costs

Though acknowledging that transmission was "essential" to grid reliability, Christie stressed the need for grid expansions and upgrades to be done at the least cost to consumers, especially in light of the economic hardships brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The decision to pursue a transmission project, he said, should come down to the substantive criteria of whether the line is needed for reliability.

In contrast, and citing a need to "future-proof the grid," fellow new commissioner and Democrat Allison Clements in a Feb. 2 interview said that "instead of saying every penny spent is a loss for customers" one should consider that the costs of fixing the outdated grid "will ultimately flow through to customers."

Clements also asserted that FERC does not need to wait for Congress to give the independent agency more clarity around its backstop siting authority following an adverse ruling in 2009 by a split panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

There, the court — whose jurisdiction includes Virginia held that FERC had read too much into a provision of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 intended to address situations in which states have withheld approval for projects running through national interest electric transmission corridors. FERC has not been asked to exercise its backstop siting authority since then, but Clements suggested that FERC still has some transmission siting authority under that act.

Christie appeared more cautious: "The 4th Circuit said FERC couldn't override state siting authority, and as a state regulator I was very strongly in favor of retaining state siting authority."

States' rights

Christie repeatedly championed states' rights during the interview, noting that "I firmly believe that the state regulators know their unique needs better than any federal regulator, and I'm going to be very, very respectful of the state positions."

FERC has taken flak in recent years for advancing orders and policies that state leaders felt encroached on their jurisdiction over retail power matters and the generation mix. Several states said they would consider taking back responsibility over resource adequacy in response to sweeping capacity market reforms FERC imposed. State utility regulators also have taken the commission to court over the management of energy storage resources connected to distribution facilities or located behind the meter.

Christie said he intended to take a hard look at whether FERC proceedings that come before him encroach upon state jurisdiction and would work to craft orders that respect state authority.

"I want to hear from the states, I want to make sure the states have a voice, and I want to make sure that state voices are heard," Christie said in support of giving states room to pursue their own policies.

In the meantime, Christie also favors convening a formal discussion such as a technical conference or notice of inquiry to smooth over tensions between the commission and states with distinct and varied clean energy policies.

"I would very much like to see the issue of accommodating state public policies within these markets teed up for a general type of discussion ... where all the interested parties, and that includes the states, can have a voice and can make their views known," Christie said.

Asked about his position on market-based climate solutions, Christie did not go into detail but offered that he would approach any such proposals from the threshold question of whether FERC has the legal authority to pursue that initiative.

And on carbon pricing specifically, Christie said he had not looked at it from a federal standpoint and noted that the issue was not squarely presented to him as a state regulator. But "there's nothing standing in the way of individual states that want to impose a carbon tax, they can do it today," Christie maintained.

Jasmin Melvin is a reporter with S&P Global Platts. S&P Global Market Intelligence and S&P Global Platts are owned by S&P Global Inc.