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White House to appoint DC PSC Chairman Willie Phillips to fill FERC seat

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District of Columbia Public Service Commissioner Willie Phillips was appointed chairman in 2018.
Source: District of Columbia Public Service Commission

District of Columbia Public Service Commission Chairman Willie Phillips will be nominated to serve as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's fifth member, the White House announced Sept. 9.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the experienced regulatory attorney will give Democrats a 3-2 majority at the agency as the Biden administration seeks to decarbonize the nation's power supply by 2035 in the face of worsening climate impacts due to global warming.

Phillips previously served as assistant general counsel for the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a nonprofit organization that works in tandem with FERC to ensure the reliability of the nation's power supply.

His nomination comes as FERC, which oversees interstate electricity and natural gas markets, grapples with heightened grid risks posed by climate-driven extreme weather.

"As the Biden administration works to tackle the climate crisis, advance environmental justice and create a clean electricity grid by 2035, FERC will maintain an important role regulating the transmission of carbon-free energy across the country," the White House said in a press release.

Phillips is known as a climate-friendly regulator, helping the district implement a nation-leading law that requires 100% renewable energy by 2032. At the same time, he also has experience advising utility clients on regulatory compliance as an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Van Ness Feldman LLP.

Phillips' other roles include serving on the boards of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Organization of PJM Interconnection States, a coalition of state regulators within the grid operator's 13-state footprint. He would replace former FERC member Neil Chatterjee, whose five-year term expired June 30.

Phillips would join the commission as it is embarking on a major rulemaking effort to speed electric transmission build-out at the pace and scale needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

A Sept. 8 report released by the U.S. Energy Department estimated that the nation will need to roughly double its electric transmission capacity by 2050 to achieve a 100% clean energy grid, a monumental task that will require overcoming major permitting obstacles. Other academic studies projected that the U.S. may even need to triple its current transmission capacity to achieve that goal.

With a Democratic majority, FERC would also be in a position to revamp its outdated natural gas pipeline certificate policy to account for greenhouse gas emissions.

FERC Chairman Richard Glick described Phillips in a statement as "highly qualified and very well regarded."

"The commission's work is essential to advancing our nation's clean energy transition and to ensuring the reliability and security of our energy infrastructure," Glick said. "A five-member commission is critical to ensuring this important work continues."

Christi Tezak, managing director of research firm ClearView Energy Partners, said Phillips' appointment to the commission would likely facilitate the adoption of more stringent environmental policies developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Council on Environmental Quality that would pose challenges to natural gas infrastructure.

"Since Glick got the gavel, we have argued that the path to approval would get longer and harder and that voluntary mitigation of [greenhouse gas emissions] might be one way to get through that tighter wicket," Tezak said in an email. Tezak also described Phillips as a relatively uncontroversial choice for the nomination who should win confirmation.

The pick was also cheered by clean energy groups like the American Council on Renewable Energy.

"Chairman Phillips' deep legal understanding of the issues at stake and clear recognition of the benefits that renewable energy provides our nation's communities are encouraging," American Council on Renewable Energy President and CEO Gregory Wetstone said in a statement. "We call on the Senate to swiftly confirm this highly qualified nominee so FERC can effectively address the transmission and power market reforms necessary to unlock America's growing renewable energy economy."

The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America also applauded news of Phillips' nomination while calling for regulatory certainty in gas proceedings.

"As the Senate considers Chairman Phillips' nomination, it is critical that he demonstrates a commitment to a predictable and clear regulatory process and evaluating each project on its merits in accordance with federal law to ensure that needed natural gas infrastructure will be built in a timely fashion," Amy Andryszak, president and CEO of the trade group, said in a statement.

In August, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America and labor groups called on the White House to nominate a FERC commissioner with a "deep understanding" of how gas infrastructure is developed.

Meanwhile, over 350 environmental justice groups wrote to the White House during the same month, urging the Biden administration to avoid a nominee who would serve as a "rubber stamp" for new fossil fuel projects.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will need to confirm Phillips' nomination before it to goes a full Senate floor vote. If the Senate fails to confirm Phillips before the end of the current Congress, his nomination must be resubmitted to the upper chamber next year.