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Protests punctuate Senate hearing on US FERC, DOE nominees

Highlights

In a Thursday hearing interrupted by vocal protests and arrests, the chairwoman of the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee sought to move three nominations by President Donald Trump to fill vacancies in the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy.

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Progress on the FERC nominees is particularly significant, given it currently lacks a three-member quorum to conduct significant regulatory actions, including approval of major energy infrastructure.

"My hope is to be able to advance your names quickly," said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican-Alaska, who heads the committee.

During the two-hour hearing, no member of the committee signaled any intent to block the nominees, but the path to Senate confirmation for the FERC nominees may be complicated by concerns from Democrats about moving forward with only Republican nominees at this time.



The three open seats at FERC are Republican, but one of the two sitting Democrats, Commissioner Colette Honorable, has announced her intention to leave. Her term expires June 30.

"This is a significant hearing ... because this is a step towards restoring a crucial independent commission to function," she said, noting that FERC has lacked a quorum since early February. "We need to move quickly to restore FERC's ability to do its important work," Murkowski added.

Thursday's hearing concerned two Republican nominees to FERC -- Neil Chatterjee, energy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; and Robert Powelson, a Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission member and president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

Committee members also questioned Dan Brouillette, Trump's pick to be deputy secretary at DOE. Brouillette is the senior vice president and head of public policy for USAA Insurance Group and a former vice president at Ford Motor.

Murkowski urged committee members not to blame Brouillette for Trump's proposal to reduce DOE's funding. "I think we should all remember that the budget request was written without him," Murkowski said. "I don't think it is going to do much good to try to hold ... Brouillette personally accountable for the budget proposal or try to delay his confirmation based on it."

The hearing was interrupted several times by protesters who shouted "shut FERC down!" Capitol police brought the protesters out to the hallway where they were handcuffed and removed from the area. One protester appeared to have attached himself to a chair in the hearing room, and the police dragged both him and the chair out to the elevator.

Beyond Extreme Energy had called on protesters to take action at the hearing to slow the nomination process, and the first woman arrested confirmed that she was working with the group. BXE is behind several protests at FERC's headquarters and disruptions of the commission's monthly meetings.

"FERC is an arm of the oil and gas industries that rubber stamp fracked gas projects and disregards the harms such projects inflict on communities, towns, and the climate," the group said in a statement.

Senators asked FERC nominees about a wide range of issues, including their stance on LNG exports, the role for states to support renewables and nuclear energy and integration of clean technologies into the electric grid.

Senator Al Franken, Democrat-Minnesota, who was filling in for the ranking member of the committee, hailed the economic opportunity for the US to pursue clean energy technology.

"Both [DOE] and [FERC] can play a key role in this clean energy revolution or they can hold us back while our international competitors reap the rewards," Franken said. "That is the prism through which I will consider the nominees that we hear from today."

Franken asked the FERC nominees what should be done to integrate distributed energy technologies into the electric grid.

Chatterjee answered, "I think we need to look at our grid infrastructure to make sure that it's prepared to deal with this transformation, as different technologies and renewables come into the marketplace."

Powelson pointed to his work on the issue at NARUC. "The first thing I did as NARUC president was to implement an innovation task force to bring all these new technology providers into a working conversation with NARUC commissioners," he said.

--Kate Winston, newsdesk@spglobal.com
--Edited by Valarie Jackson, valarie.jackson@spglobal.com