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US Senate Democrats revive bill to bolster public participation at FERC

U.S. Senate Democrats reintroduced legislation May 15 aimed at encouraging residential and small commercial energy consumers to be more involved in proceedings before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Public Engagement at FERC Act, or S. 1477, would create an Office of Public Participation and Consumer Advocacy at the commission, with the director appointed by the Secretary of Energy.

The office would help represent the interests of residential and small commercial energy consumers in FERC proceedings on rates, service and infrastructure siting, including by collecting relevant rate and service data and monitoring and reviewing customer complaints and grievances. The office also would advise those entities on federal court reviews of FERC decisions and proceedings before other federal agencies related to commission matters. Additionally, the office can issue guidance on potential improvements to industry and FERC practices and provide funding for residential and small commercial consumers to intervene in commission proceedings.

The bill would furthermore establish a Public and Consumer Advocacy Advisory Committee within the new office to review rates, services and disputes and make related recommendations to the director. The committee must be made up of no fewer than two people representing state utility consumer advocates and at least one individual representing a non-governmental organization that represents consumers.

"Decisions made by FERC impact Americans' daily lives, yet people in New Hampshire and across the country are forced to navigate a needlessly complex and expensive process if they wish to participate in the agency's proceedings," said U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., the lead sponsor of the bill. "It is essential that the public play a strong role in shaping our nation’s energy future. This legislation would strengthen public involvement and ensure that the agency is making decisions that are in the best interest of those who will be most impacted."

Co-sponsors of Shaheen's bill include Democratic Sens. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Mark Warner of Virginia. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent, also signed on to the legislation. U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., will introduce a companion proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to a news release from Shaheen's office.

At least 16 organizations have backed the Public Engagement at FERC Act, including the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, National Association of State Energy Officials, Sierra Club and Public Citizen.

The U.S. Congress authorized FERC to create an Office of Public Participation as part of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978, but the commission has not done so. Public Citizen and other groups in 2016 asked FERC to start a rulemaking to carry out the mandate, pointing to the U.S. power industry's shift away from vertically integrated utilities that had mostly fallen under the jurisdiction of state regulators. The groups also said regional market monitors were not sufficiently acting as consumer advocates, meaning FERC should establish its own public participation office.

Shaheen introduced similar legislation to S. 1477 in the prior Congress spanning 2017-2018, but the legislation never made it beyond the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. A spokesperson for the Senate energy committee did not respond to a request for comment on next steps for the bill.