Washington — Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee is once again pushing back hard against the notion that partisanship is coloring the agency's work under his watch or that the White House exerts more influence than it once had.
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His comments follow a speech to the Energy Bar Association in which Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur lamented what she described as the spread of political division to the independent agency. She suggested unusually high turnover and uptick in the number of partisan splits on votes have taken a toll at 888 First Street.
"I wholeheartedly and respectfully disagree," Chatterjee said in an interview with S&P Global Platts. "I don't believe that the agency is going through any kind of partisan period that's different from what it's gone through in the past."
To make his case, Chatterjee said he had staff quickly crunch the numbers, comparing dissents and orders under his 11 months as chairman to the time period in which LaFleur led the agency.
"In the 11 months I've been chair, [there were] more than 1,000 orders, maybe 20 dissents. That's a miniscule portion," he said. During LaFleur's period as chair, the number of orders vis-a-vis dissents is "almost identical," he said.
Nonetheless, the last two years have seen a leap in divided decisions on natural gas projects, adding new uncertainty for developers.
Chatterjee agreed that most differences at FERC have centered around those project reviews.
"We have disagreements over what FERC's role is and the environmental assessment we have to do. But that doesn't mean that these are partisan disagreements," he said.
"These are discrete areas where my colleagues and I have some disagreement, but I wouldn't necessarily characterize that as a product of the broader politicization or partisanship in Washington. I genuinely believe that this agency continues to uphold its independence, its technical nature, and as former Commissioner [Robert] Powelson used to say, doing the boring good."
Chatterjee pointed to the last FERC meeting as "a perfect demonstration" of votes that defy party divisions. He and fellow Republican Commissioner Bernard McNamee took differing positions on an electric storage order, LaFleur joined the majority to back another LNG project, and a tweak to enforcement policy drew unanimous support.
POLITICALLY CHARGED ISSUES
Still, commissioners at times have traded barbs, such as when Chatterjee remarked that the natural gas policy "was fine" when LaFleur was chairman, or when LaFleur tweeted an image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's infamous clap in reply to Chatterjee's celebration of a "breakthrough" on an LNG project order.
Energy policy spats used to have a geographic basis or pit rural and urban policymakers against one another, but the climate debate has made energy issues politically radioactive, ultimately affecting FERC, one agency observer said.
As for gas projects, Gary Kruse of Law IQ said he couldn't remember a time "where there was such a fundamental disagreement about the methodology for reviewing the projects." In the past, it was harder to discern the party of commissioners, he added. His analysis of decisions using FERC's e-library showed 33 dissents on natural gas project applications since 2017, compared with 9 between 2008 and 2016.
POWER POLICY 'COMPLICATED'
The power sector is eagerly awaiting FERC action on a growing number of dockets, from the pressing issue of PJM Interconnection's capacity market rules as an August auction draws closer to a rulemaking to aid market participation of distributed energy resource aggregations.
The pace has provoked some quiet grumbling in the regulated industry that the process for working out differences is faltering. There is growing irritation that things are bogging down, said one trade group executive.
"These are complex issues but I don't think any hold up is the result of any kind of politicization or partisanship at the commission," Chatterjee said. "I think it has far more to do with the complexity of the issues."
Chatterjee added that broader policy reforms on Order 1000 and the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act remain priorities. Rather than partisan differences, he noted difficulties inherent in finding resolutions as well as turnover at the commission, with the newest member, McNamee, needing time "to get up to speed ... and weigh in."
As for the path forward, Chatterjee demurred when asked how he would seek to ease tensions or address concerns about FERC's independence. He repeated his view that only a tiny fraction of FERC's work has drawn dissents, and said there is no evidence that the administration is trying to drive an agenda at FERC.
"Maybe part of Commissioner LaFleur's frustration is having been chair of the commission and then serving in the minority on the commission. I can imagine that could be frustrating and maybe that's where some of this is emanating from," he said.
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