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Washington Week: US Senate confirms Kavanaugh, receives McNamee nomination


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Washington Week: US Senate confirms Kavanaugh, receives McNamee nomination

The U.S. Senate continues to make headway confirming Trump administration nominees who could have big impacts on energy. The chamber voted over the weekend to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, while Bernard McNamee's nomination to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission took a recent step forward.

After a bitter and partisan confirmation process, the Senate voted 50-48 on Oct. 6 to make Kavanaugh an associate justice on the country's highest court. Kavanaugh was sworn in shortly afterward "so that he can begin to participate in the work of the Court immediately," according to a statement on the Supreme Court's website.

Kavanaugh's path to the Supreme Court was roiled by sexual assault claims. A supplemental FBI investigation found "no corroboration" of the allegations, according to a summary of the probe released by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., challenged that assessment, suggesting that the investigation appeared "incomplete" and "limited."

Kavanaugh replaces retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy was a frequent swing voter, but Kavanaugh is expected to be a more solidly conservative justice and tilt the Supreme Court to a firm 5-4 conservative majority.

Senate receives FERC nomination

The White House on Oct. 5 sent McNamee's nomination to be a new FERC member to the Senate for consideration. If confirmed, his term would run through June 2020.

The move came two days after the Trump administration announced its intent to nominate McNamee to replace former GOP Commissioner Robert Powelson, who left FERC in August to become head of a private water industry trade group.

But the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee still needs all of McNamee's paperwork before it can schedule a hearing on his nomination. "As soon as we receive all required paperwork, we will schedule a hearing," committee spokesperson Nicole Daigle said Oct. 5.

The Trump administration's selection of McNamee pleased coal industry supporters who hope FERC will take some action to stem the tide of coal-fired power plant retirements. McNamee currently heads the U.S. Department of Energy's office of policy and was the agency's deputy general counsel when Energy Secretary Rick Perry asked FERC in September 2017 to craft a rule ensuring full cost recovery for power plants in wholesale markets that store at least 90 days of fuel onsite.

The proposal was broadly viewed as a way to underpin coal and nuclear plants that are capable of meeting the fuel inventory requirement.

FERC unanimously rejected the DOE proposal, but coal and nuclear industry advocates have continued to press the federal government for policies to support those plants. With McNamee on board at FERC, those industries may have an easier time making their case.

At a Senate hearing in July to discuss DOE reorganization efforts, lawmakers questioned McNamee on the agency's proposal in light of concerns that such action would distort competitive markets and raise costs for ratepayers. While acknowledging the importance of a market-based power sector, McNamee said many organized U.S. markets "have distortions in them that aren't representative of an actual free-serving market."

He therefore saw the "need to remove some of those distortions and get some more parity."

McNamee also could prove crucial in advancing pipeline projects at FERC. The commission currently has two Democratic and two GOP members, leaving the agency at risk of 2-2 splits on approving new pipelines. McNamee, who has voiced support for fossil fuels generally, likely would be a supporter of new pipelines and give the commission the 3-2 majority needed to authorize those projects.

Democrats opposed to market interventions to support coal could try to block McNamee's nomination. That job could become easier if Democrats manage to reclaim a majority in the Senate after the November midterm elections.

Senate to vote on water infrastructure bill

The Senate is set to vote this week on a large water infrastructure bill that contains provisions to ease permitting of hydropower projects.

On the evening of Oct. 9, the Senate will vote to invoke cloture on an amended version of the America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed in mid-September. Among other things, the sprawling bill would extend the length of preliminary construction permits for hydropower projects and speed development of hydroelectric facilities at non-powered dams.

The bill would also revise the Federal Power Act to allow power rate changes that effect due to FERC inaction to be considered final orders, thereby allowing challengers to seek rehearing and court reviews of the rates.

Hearing to look at 'blackstart' capabilities

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold an Oct. 11 hearing on the electric grid's ability to recover from system-wide blackouts, including its "blackstart" capabilities.

Blackstart generation resources can be started without help from the grid or remain energized without being connected to the rest of the grid. A recent report from FERC and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. released in May found that American grid operators have enough blackstart resources to quickly restore their systems in the event of widespread power outages.

But the report still gave recommendations on how grid operators and utilities could improve their system restoration capabilities, including offering approaches to address single fuel-use constraints and urging expanded testing of restoration plans.

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US Congress

Oct. 11

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing to examine the U.S. electric grid's "blackstart" capabilities.

Federal agencies
Oct. 9

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will host a public meeting in Washington, D.C., to gather input on the agency's study of oil and gas extraction wastewater management.

Industry events

Oct. 10

The Energy Policy Institute for the University of Chicago will hold a forum in Washington, D.C., on research and development investments in clean energy innovation. The forum is in partnership with the ClearPath Foundation, American Council for Capital Formation and the University of Oxford

Oct. 10

The CSIS Energy and National Security Program will host Eirik Wærness to present Equinor's Energy Perspectives 2018, which summarizes different narratives about the future of global energy demand and resource mixes. The event will take place at CSIS's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Oct. 10

The Heritage Foundation will hold a forum at its Washington, D.C., office on multinational nuclear supplier partnerships within the OECD.

Oct. 11

The CSIS Energy and National Security Program will discuss the International Energy Agency's new report, "The Future of Petrochemicals: Towards a more Sustainable Supply of Plastics and Fertilizers." That report explores the future role of the petrochemical sector within overall oil demand and the global energy system.

Other notable stories from last week

PJM submits FERC-mandated capacity market proposal, with a twist

US EPA's plan to revisit mercury rule analysis moves forward, but impact unclear

Investors, others ask US SEC to mandate, streamline corporate ESG disclosures

White House could aid pipeline projects in 2019, economic adviser says

Experts spar over US EPA's proposed science transparency rule