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FERC 'tone and emphasis' to change under Trump

The federal regulator in charge of interstate electricity, oil and gas transmission may not be as politically sensitive as other agencies but could still shift its focus under incoming Republican President Donald Trump.

FERC is "not designed to make radical" decisions for the U.S. energy sector but will at least change its "tone and emphasis" and perhaps alter policies when Trump enters office, former FERC commissioner Tony Clark said Dec. 14 at S&P Global Market Intelligence's Utility Regulation Conference in Washington, D.C.

FERC regulates wholesale transmission and electricity sales, among other duties, but has a limited role in broader energy policies and the make-up of the U.S. generating mix. Advocates of baseload coal power have wanted FERC to get more involved in Obama administration emissions rules that could force coal unit retirements, and lawmakers have pushed to give the agency more authority over any proposed federal rules that could impact grid reliability.

Although the commission cannot stand in the way of utilities' generation planning, "you will probably see that baseload [power] is a little more back in vogue" at FERC under Trump, Clark said. The president-elect's resistance to climate regulations means the U.S. EPA's Clean Power Plan is "toast," according to Clark. The former FERC commissioner also expects the Trump administration to repeal guidance for the government to consider carbon emissions-related costs for infrastructure projects undergoing federal environmental reviews.

In terms of power policy, Clark said FERC could make some changes to the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA, but that major PURPA reforms will need to happen in Congress. "Keep an eye on that," he advised.

FERC appointments

Clark said change will happen fast in 2017 to fill vacancies on the commission. FERC has three sitting commissioners right now, with two seats vacant after Clark and former commissioner Philip Moeller left the agency. The sitting commissioners, including FERC Chairman Norman Bay, are all Democrats. With Trump coming on board, Clark said the next chairman will be a Republican, but there is "no heir apparent." The next chairman will not have prior commission experience since that person will not be one of the sitting commissioners and no veterans are likely to come back to FERC, he added.

"I'm not going to do it," Clark said, adding that he did not believe Moeller was interested either. "We don't know who that person is going to be."