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FERC commissioner LaFleur to leave late August, restoring Republican majority

Houston — US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Cheryl LaFleur will step down at the end of August, she announced on Twitter Thursday.

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The departure of LaFleur, a Democrat, likely will restore a Republican majority at the commission responsible for critical decisions affecting the US electric power and natural gas sectors.

FERC has had an even 2-2 split of Republicans and Democrats since former Commissioner Kevin McIntyre died in early January. The White House has yet to nominate his replacement, although FERC General Counsel James Danly is considered the likely nominee. Whether the White House would put forward a Democrat to replace LaFleur in the near future is more uncertain.

"After 9 amazing years, I will be leaving @FERC at the end of August," LaFleur wrote, noting that FERC's July 18 open meeting would be her last.

NO ANNOUNCEMENT ON NEXT JOB

"I am looking forward to the future, but no announcements on that at this time," she said.

While the bulk of FERC's orders are approved unanimously, the 2-2 split at the agency has added uncertainty for natural gas projects, amid differences over environmental reviews, although four major LNG projects received FERC certificate orders critical to their advancement this year.

The current 2-2 split may be affecting the commission's ability to act on some major policy reviews it has taken on.

It is unclear whether that has been the reason for inaction on key power sector proceedings, including an order on PJM Interconnection capacity market reforms.

GAS PROJECT DEBATE

With a majority at the commission, Republicans will have more power, unless further checked by the courts, to confine GHG considerations in gas project reviews to emissions directly tied to the projects. LaFleur and fellow Democrat Richard Glick have argued for further consideration of upstream and downstream indirect emissions, such as those associated with gas production or end-use combustion. That debate has played out in project dockets at FERC and litigation working through the courts. LaFleur has been an important swing vote, recently joining Republicans to back four major LNG projects, after a partial compromise on emissions calculations. A clear Republican majority could add more certainty around the timing of gas project decisions.

In January, LaFleur announced she would no longer be seeking a third term, after her term was set to expire at the end of June. The decision followed notification from Senate Democratic leadership that she would not be renominated.

Since joining FERC in July 2010, LaFleur has twice served as chairman, from November 2013 to April 2015, and again at the start of the Trump administration from January 23, 2017, to August 10, 2017, after Trump took the gavel away from Chairman Norman Bay and FERC was subsequently left without a quorum.

She has been credited with keeping FERC running during that lapse and readying orders to be approved once new commissioners were seated.

Among her areas of focus, LaFleur held a 2017 technical conference on reconciling competitive wholesale markets with state resource policies. She kept attention on grid reliability matters including the threat of electromagnetic pulses and geomagnetic disturbances.

FERC's role in reviewing natural gas projects grew more contentious during her time at the agency.

-- Maya Weber, maya.weber@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Rocco Canonica, newsdesk@spglobal.com