Responding to inquiries by federal lawmakers, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revealed that he authorized his chief of staff to be interviewed by Breitbart News and to speak before the American Nuclear Society.
FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre also suggested he did nothing wrong in doing so.
"Speeches and remarks by members of the commission's senior staff are routine and commonplace and I had no basis for concern with Mr. [Anthony] Pugliese's participation in the interview or speech," McIntyre said in a letter to Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
Cantwell, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Frank Pallone, N.J., the top Democrat on the House of Representatives' Committee on Energy and Commerce, had asked McIntyre to respond to a series of questions about controversial public remarks made by Pugliese.
During an interview that aired on the conservative Breitbart News Sunday show in early July, Pugliese criticized Democrats for their alleged anti-energy infrastructure stance and accused them of playing politics. He took particular aim at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration for blocking the construction of proposed natural gas pipelines. Pugliese also said the commission was eagerly awaiting a Republican replacement for outgoing member Robert Powelson, a Republican and fierce advocate for competitive markets.
A month later, Pugliese gave a speech to the American Nuclear Society and revealed that the commission was working with the U.S. Department of Energy and other federal agencies to identify power plants that are crucial to operating hospitals, defense installations and other critical infrastructure.
Pugliese's Breitbart News interview received little notice at first, but after E&E News on Aug. 9 publicized the contents of Pugliese's speech to the nuclear group, concerns were raised on various fronts. Traditionally, FERC chiefs of staff generally have been publicly apolitical and rarely have agreed to give news interviews, and the revelation that FERC was working with the DOE on an initiative aimed at providing financial support to struggling coal-fired and nuclear power plants stoked concerns that the commission's independence was at risk. A FERC spokesman claimed that was not the case.
FERC famously demonstrated that independence in early 2018 when it rejected a DOE proposal that would have required grid operators to ensure full cost recovery for plants that stored at least 90 days of fuel onsite in an effort to bolster grid resilience. However, the administration has continued to seek other ways to prop up vulnerable coal and nuclear plants, including considering the use of a rarely invoked national defense law to save those facilities, and the loss of Powelson has left some wondering if FERC will now support those efforts.
"We are deeply concerned that your chief of staff, for whom you bear special responsibility, has been making public statements that call into question his impartiality and independence from political pressure," Cantwell and Pallone said in an Aug. 22 letter to McIntyre. Citing FERC's role as an independent agency, the two lawmakers asked McIntyre to respond to a series of questions.
In a letter to the lawmakers dated Aug. 24 but made public by the Senate Energy Committee on Sept. 6, McIntyre stressed his commitment to preserving FERC's independence and impartiality.
In response to the lawmakers' specific questions, he said the commission speaks exclusively through its orders and therefore neither the public statements of Pugliese nor those of any other FERC staff member "can state the views of the commission, particularly in connection with proceedings on which the commission has not issued an order on the merits."
"Consequently, neither Mr. Pugliese nor any other FERC staff member has or could be authorized by me or other commissioners to state the commission's views on matters pending before it," McIntyre said.
When asking for authorization to participate in the Breitbart News interview, Pugliese said he only planned to discuss matters of general interest, such as cybersecurity concerns, grid resilience and the nation's changing generation mix, according to McIntyre.
Asserting that speeches and remarks by members of the commission's senior staff are routine and commonplace, the chairman said he had no reason to be concerned about Pugliese's participation in the interview or speech. McIntyre acknowledged, however, that the specific topics Pugliese addressed "were not subject to review and were not identified in advance."
McIntyre also assured the lawmakers that commission staff has not discussed with any executive branch officials the merits of any "grid resilience" proposal that would support a particular form of generation over another. Finally, McIntyre insisted that Pugliese is well qualified for his position, which is why the chief of staff remained in that role even after McIntyre took over the agency's gavel from Commissioner Neil Chatterjee.
Pugliese served as White House adviser at the Transportation Department from the beginning of the Trump administration in January 2017 until he was appointed FERC chief of staff in August 2017 by Chatterjee, who began heading the agency on a temporary basis at that time.