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White House expected to tap DOE's McNamee to fill key FERC seat

Highlights

Administration's grid resilience push adds friction to confirmation

Outspoken support for fossil energy

Washington — The White House is expected to tap US Department of Energy official Bernard McNamee to fill the soon-to-be-vacant spot at the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, several Washington sources said Thursday.

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Filling the post quickly would lower chances some midstream natural gas infrastructure will be caught in a 2-2 split at the commission, given recent dissents on some projects. But McNamee's backing of DOE initiatives to keep coal and nuclear power plants afloat could stoke gas industry fears of erosion to their edge in wholesale power markets.

Commissioner Robert Powelson, an outspoken critic of such market interventions, will leave FERC Friday to become president of the National Association of Water Companies.

Currently serving as executive director of DOE's Office of Policy, McNamee's background also includes a brief stop this year at conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, which says its mission is to defend liberty and has actively opposed wind power. He has also served as DOE deputy general counsel, represented energy and utility clients at McGuireWoods, worked as a policy advisor for Senator Ted Cruz, Republican-Texas, and been chief of staff for the Texas attorney general.

His outspoken support for fossil fuels and association with contentious DOE grid resilience initiatives suggest the confirmation process could be rocky.

McNamee wrote an Earth Day op-ed in The Hill this year to counter the narrative that fossil fuels are "wrecking the environment and our health."

"The facts are that life expectancy, population and economic growth all began to increase dramatically when fossil fuels were harnessed -- and have continued to do so for the 200 years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution," he wrote.

DEFENSE OF GRID POLICY

He has defended DOE's grid resilience initiatives against criticism that they would distort markets. The president and energy secretary's concern "is that a lot of the organized markets have distortions in them that aren't representative of an actual free-serving market," he told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at a hearing in July. "The thought ... is that you need to remove some of those distortions and get some more parity," he added.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Maria Cantwell of Washington, expressed concern that the administration was considering using emergency authorities under the Federal Power Act and Defense Production Act to address baseload retirements and fuel security issues.

"So the notion that the president wants to make electricity more expensive for many parts of America is just crazy," Cantwell said at the hearing, suggesting such a plan could raise rates "30-40% on big swaths of the economy."

EARLY OPPOSITION

Some groups are already opposing McNamee's potential nomination as a move by the White House to add a supportive vote at FERC for such a plan. Sierra Club and Public Citizen made critical statements Thursday. "His strong support for fossil fuels at the expense of other [resources] flies in the face of what FERC is supposed to do," said Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen, calling McNamee unqualified because of his role in the "radical bailout" proposal.

William Scherman, a partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, by contrast said McNamee "is eminently qualified with great expertise to be a FERC commissioner; and if the Senate is properly doing advise and consent, he should be confirmed immediately." Scherman has represented FirstEnergy, a proponent of the administration's grid security efforts.

Timing of Senate confirmation may depend on the willingness of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to use scarce Senate floor time before the mid-term elections. Some Democratic objections to advancing to a vote on confirmation are seen as likely.

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

--Edited by Gail Roberts, newsdesk@spglobal.com