US Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner John Norris on Thursday said he would leave the commission later this month, following months of speculation about his early exit.
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Norris' announcement comes just days after President Barack Obama designated Cheryl LaFleur to be chairman of FERC until April 2015, removing her "acting" title and providing her with all the powers of the chairmanship during that time.
Obama also designated newly minted Commissioner Norman Bay to be chairman on April 15, 2015. Bay, the former enforcement director at FERC, was sworn in Monday as a commissioner.
"It has been a great honor to serve with all the exceptional professionals and public servants who make up the FERC family and so many dedicated energy stakeholders in the public and private sectors," Norris said in a statement posted to FERC's website. "I want to say a special thank you to the incredible personal staff I have had throughout my tenure on the commission."
Norris said he would resign effective August 20 and take a position as the Minister Counselor for the US Department of Agriculture in Rome.
Norris said in an interview that he was "very excited about the assignment and the work" in the new position, where he will be working with the UN in Rome on food and agricultural policy. He said that he had been speaking with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the position for several months -- Norris served as Vilsack's chief of staff while Vilsack was governor of Iowa and early in Vilsack's tenure as agriculture secretary.
"The fact is that it's a really good job," Norris said. "It's a really interesting policy area for me and a whole new experience for me, working with international policy."
It is those aspects of the job, rather than his frustrations with Washington, that are driving his decision, he said.
But Norris did acknowledge that the downside will be that he will not get to work on energy policy for some time, saying that he has "really strong thoughts" about where the country and FERC should be going. He said, though, that he is also passionate about agricultural issues, noting that he worked on those in Iowa earlier in his career.
Norris said he plans to continue voting at FERC in the waning days of his term.
With Norris leaving, attention now turns to the soon-to-be-open seat at FERC, with early speculation that Colette Honorable, an Arkansas regulator and the current president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, is likely in the lead for that position. A spokesman for Honorable did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Norris' announcement follows months of speculation about plans to leave the commission prior to the end of his term in June 2017. Last September, Norris told reporters that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada had intervened with the Obama administration to stop his appointment as chairman over concerns that the commissioner was "too pro-coal."
According to Norris, an aide to Reid cited a vote Norris had made while serving as chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board. The plant in question was Sutherland Generating Station Unit 4, a 630-MW, coal-fired plant to be built in Marshalltown, Iowa, which ultimately was never built.
Observers said last year that the conditions that Norris and the rest of the IUB put on the plant included mandates to use renewable fuels like switchgrass as part of the fuel supply and that the utility generate an increasing percentage of its power from wind and other renewables.
While Reid staffers at the time denied Norris' allegations that Reid blocked his path to the chairman's seat, the majority leader's influence over who leads FERC became more public during the recent confirmation process for LaFleur and Bay. Amid speculation that Reid sought to block LaFleur from keeping the chairman's seat, Reid was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying he did not want her as chairman because she has "done some stuff to do away with" initiatives advanced by former Chairman Jon Wellinghoff.
Norris in December said he was disappointed at being passed over for the chairman's job, saying that "my interest in working for Reid and this administration right now is not very high, because I like to deal straight with people and honestly with people, and it's been a big disappointment."
At the time, Norris said he had no intention of leaving the commission and was not looking for opportunities elsewhere. But he said the bar for leaving the commission before his term was up was lower than it had been.
"I still like the job," Norris said. "I still have plans for what I want to do with the job."
In April, rumors began to swirl that Norris was looking to leave the commission as early as June or July, in part because of his dealings with the White House and the Senate leadership. While Norris at the time said he had "no idea" if he would serve out the remainder of his term, he said that the "politics around the makeup of the commission at a time when several critical decisions need to be made is immensely frustrating."
Last week, sources said Norris' departure could be imminent. At the time, an aide to Norris declined to comment on the matter.