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Energy industry celebrates, environmentalists fret as Senate restores FERC

The energy industry welcomed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission back to full function after the U.S. Senate confirmed Republicans Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson as commissioners, but environmental groups were unhappy that the voting quorum allows the commission to again approve natural gas infrastructure projects.

"We applaud the Senate," Don Santa, president and CEO of Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. "The commission can now get back to work thoroughly reviewing the many energy infrastructure projects of national importance that have been sidelined in recent months." Santa also said he was encouraged by the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee scheduling a September hearing for two more nominees, Republican Kevin McIntyre and Democrat Richard Glick.

The Senate action came on Aug. 3, six months after the five-member commission dropped below the minimum number of three commissioners necessary to vote on major items of business such as granting certificate orders for pipelines, approving mergers and putting new policy in place. Once sworn in, Chatterjee and Powelson will join acting Chairman Cheryl LaFleur. Chatterjee comes to the commission after serving as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's energy adviser. Powelson was a commissioner on the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

FERC lost a quorum in early February, when Commissioner Norman Bay resigned from the agency. Commissioner Colette Honorable chose not to stay past the end of her term on June 30. Some gas projects have stalled during the commission's down time, awaiting a decision on an authorizing order.

"There are billions of dollars of privately funded infrastructure projects currently tied up at FERC because the agency has lacked a quorum," American Petroleum Institute's Midstream Group Director Robin Rorick said.

The electric power industry was also glad to have FERC back. Both Advanced Energy Economy and the Edison Electric Institute said they would work with the commissioners on issues such as keeping market rules open to newer technologies, improving the function and price formation in wholesale markets, updating the transmission planning process, streamlining the siting and permitting process, nurturing return on equity in order to attract investment, and ensuring reliability and energy grid security. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners welcomed the confirmation, and Executive Director Greg White said it was "positive news" for association members.

"This is a win for workers across the energy supply chain, and every American that benefits from access to affordable energy," said Toby Mack, president and CEO of the Energy Equipment & Infrastructure Alliance. "This is a step in the right direction to creating jobs, growing our economy and making America stronger."

According to Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the confirmation of the nominees is a chance to "move forward on critical co-op issues such as access to a diverse power supply."

Environmental groups, however, reacted to the news of the new commissioners with dismay. The Natural Resources Defense Council was cautious, with Director John Moore saying he hoped the commission will evolve to "the new reality of a more efficient, cleaner and affordable grid," specifically wind and solar energy.

The Sierra Club pointed to the incoming commissioners' experience in the energy industry as a detriment rather than a benefit.

"Based on their records, we remain concerned that Chatterjee and Powelson will continue FERC's status quo, approving unneeded fracked gas pipelines that take private land for corporate gain and lock Americans into higher electricity rates while increasing our dependency on fossil fuels for decades to come," Senior Director at the Sierra Club Lena Moffitt said. "While they may have moved through the confirmation process with ease, these nominees will be met with firm resistance from communities across the country who have fought against the buildout of fracked gas."

After the confirmation, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network said instead of solely focusing on FERC, as it has before, the group and other pipeline opponents will also hold senators accountable. "The Senate betrayed the public's trust," the group's leader Maya Van Rossum said. "This act is a shocking display of disregard for the public and a demonstration that, in the final analysis, the politicians will always play politics before they truly seek to protect the people."