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Temporary FERC chairman praises coal, promises to cut through agency backlog

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's temporary new chairman called for proper compensation of "baseload" coal and nuclear plants and promised to help cut FERC's backlog of infrastructure project applications now that the agency has its quorum back.

The White House on Aug. 10 appointed Neil Chatterjee as chairman of FERC until the U.S. Senate confirms energy lawyer Kevin McIntyre to lead the agency.

Chatterjee, a former energy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joins FERC at a busy time. From early February until last week, the agency lacked the ability to vote on major energy project applications and other significant matters because it did not have the minimum of three sitting members to meet quorum requirements. Now that it has three members, the Kentucky native promised that, as chairman, he intends to address the logjam of pending matters as soon as possible.

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FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, who will serve as chairman of the agency until FERC nominee Kevin McIntyre is confirmed to lead the agency.

Source: FERC

"My first priority is to get started on the accumulated backlog," Chatterjee said in an interview with FERC spokesman Mary O'Driscoll that the agency posted Aug. 14. "There is a lot of consternation out there and I'm committed to working with my colleagues to get after it right away."

He warned that reducing the backlog is "going to take some time" but praised former Acting Chairman Cheryl LaFleur and FERC staff for laying "so much of the groundwork" for the restored quorum. "Because of all of the tremendous work that has already been done to date, we'll work through [the orders] as soon as we can," he said.

Chatterjee also praised the role of coal in the U.S. generating mix, noting that the fuel provides over 80% of electric generation in his home state of Kentucky.

"I believe baseload power should be recognized as an essential part of the fuel mix," he said. "I believe that generation, including our existing coal and nuclear fleet, need to be properly compensated to recognize the value they provide to the system."

The comments come as the U.S. Department of Energy examines whether economic difficulties for many coal and nuclear plants should require policy intervention from the federal government.

In April, Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered the DOE to conduct a 60-day study of the issue, but the department has yet to publicly release its findings. A leaked draft of the report indicated that an abundance of cheap natural gas and a lack of strong electricity demand growth were more to blame for coal and nuclear power's woes than regulatory burdens. Although FERC is limited in its ability to prescribe reliance on particular energy resources, the agency could take steps to encourage support for struggling coal and nuclear plants.

"As a nation, we need to ensure that coal along with gas and renewables continue to be part of our diverse fuel mix," Chatterjee said.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a nomination hearing for McIntyre and Democratic FERC nominee Rich Glick on Sept. 7.