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Washington Week: McIntyre's passing leaves hole at FERC, questions on successor

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Washington Week: McIntyre's passing leaves hole at FERC, questions on successor

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Kevin McIntyre, FERC commissioner and former chairman, died on Jan. 2.

Source: FERC

The recent death of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member and former Chairman Kevin McIntyre has raised questions on the policy direction at the agency and about whom and how the Trump administration will replace him.

McIntyre, who succumbed to brain cancer on Jan. 2, had a short but high-impact tenure at FERC. After being sworn in as chairman in December 2017, he quickly sought more time for the commission to consider a controversial proposal from the U.S. Department of Energy that sought to prevent further retirements of coal-fired and nuclear power plants. A month later, FERC unanimously rejected the proposal, which renewable energy and natural gas industry groups said would have raised rates for electricity consumers and unfairly advantaged certain resource types.

Despite rejecting the DOE proposal, the commission launched a review of regional grid operators' resilience concerns and possible policy remedies. That proceeding is ongoing.

In addition to the resilience docket, McIntyre initiated a review of FERC's nearly 20-year-old pipeline certification process amid mounting public scrutiny of natural gas pipeline projects' climate change impacts. He also spearheaded an agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to coordinate the siting and safety review of FERC-jurisdictional LNG facilities.

But McIntyre's health issues eventually caused him to step down as chairman in October 2018, although he stayed on as a commissioner at FERC until his death.

"Kevin exhibited strong leadership and an unmatched knowledge of energy policy and the rule of law," FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee said in a statement. "He exemplified what it means to be a true public servant each and every day, no matter the challenges that lie ahead of him."

Although a Republican appointee of the Trump administration, McIntyre also drew praise from environmental groups that valued his independence from the White House's policy aims.

McIntyre "led FERC with a steady hand and with an emphasis on preserving open electricity markets and maintaining the independence of the commission," said John Moore, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Sustainable FERC Project. "As we look to the future, we urge Congress, the administration, and the commission itself to preserve both the spirit and letter of fairness and even-handedness that marked Chairman McIntyre's tenure."

McIntyre's death could shift the political balance at FERC. The agency is now down to two Republican and two Democratic members. Current GOP commissioners Chatterjee and the recently confirmed Bernard McNamee have been staunch advocates for coal-based power in the past. The loss of McIntyre therefore has raised questions about whether the Trump administration, which has worked to ease the coal industry's regulatory burdens, could nominate someone more likely than McIntyre to back policies similar to the failed DOE proposal.

The power sector also is wondering whether the confirmation process for the White House's pick to replace McIntyre could be paired with one for a Democratic nominee. Democratic FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur's term at the agency expires after June, and the administration has yet to say if and when they will renominate her or choose another candidate. But even if LaFleur's term ends without a successor confirmed, she could stay on at the agency through the end of the year.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

Government shutdown touches energy

The partial U.S. government shutdown has entered its third week and is starting to be felt by the energy sector.

The funding hiatus prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to suspend its investigation into a deadly September 2018 series of gas explosions and fires in Massachusetts. The blasts and fires on NiSource Inc. subsidiary Columbia Gas of Massachusetts' system killed one person, injured at least 21 others and damaged 131 structures.

The shutdown also has affected the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. U.S. Department of Justice lawyers representing the EPA started requesting stays for ongoing lawsuits, including litigation challenging the Trump administration's changes to an Obama-era coal ash storage rule, until Congress provides further appropriations for the agency.

Funding for about 25% of the federal government lapsed on Dec. 21 after President Donald Trump and congressional lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on money for Trump's proposed wall along the U.S-Mexico border. How that stalemate ultimately will be resolved remains unclear.

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote this week on separate appropriations bills for the EPA and agencies affected by the shutdown. But without Trump's desired funding for the border wall, those bills may ultimately be rejected by the White House.

"We told the president we needed the government opened," U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said following a Jan. 4 meeting with Trump. "He resisted. In fact, he said he'd keep the government closed for a very long period of time. Months or even years."

Pallone to hold climate hearing

With control of the House now in their grasp, Democrats are acting on plans to focus more on climate change in the new Congress.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., announced Jan. 3 that one of the committee's first hearings this Congress will be on the environmental and economic impacts of climate change. The event will be in addition to other climate change-focused hearings that the House Natural Resources Committee and House Science, Space and Technology Committee have said they want to hold early in 2019.

"There is no more pressing issue for our economy, our communities and our planet than climate change, and this is the first of many hearings the committee will hold on this growing crisis," Pallone said.

The announcement came after House Democratic leaders formalized plans to establish the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. According to a final House rules package for the new Congress, the committee will study and develop recommendations for policies "to achieve substantial and permanent reductions in pollution and other activities that contribute to the climate crisis." But the panel cannot draft or vote on legislation and will lack subpoena or deposition powers, although it can make recommendations on those matters to relevant standing committees.

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Industry events

Jan. 8

The American Petroleum Institute will hold its State of American Energy press call and luncheon in Washington, D.C.

Jan. 10

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue will deliver the chamber's annual "State of American Business" address at the group's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Jan. 10

The Interstate National Gas Association of America is hosting a media roundtable with INGAA President and CEO Don Santa and incoming Chairman Bill Yardley.

Notable stories from last week

US Congress braces for energy policy gridlock in 2019

Outlook 2019: Big year for power, natural gas players under FERC jurisdiction

Climate initiatives, US court battles loom large heading into 2019

US Senate confirms several Trump energy, environmental nominees

Obstacles to decarbonization are 'mostly political,' former Md. governor says

Foreign buyers, maturing renewables augur strong M&A outlook for US generation