Coalition urges FERC confirmation delay, Trump investigation

Hannah Northey, E&E News reporter
May 15, 2017

Environmentalists want the Senate to delay confirmation hearings for vacant Federal Energy Regulatory Commission posts until President Trump’s business ties and former FBI Director James Comey’s firing are investigated. Photo by Ryan McKnight, courtesy of Flickr.

More than 160 groups opposing President Trump’s nominations for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission called today for delaying Senate confirmation hearings while lawmakers probe the president’s potential conflicts of interest and ties to foreign governments.

“President Trump’s unknown personal and professional ties with foreign leaders and foreign corporations raise serious and legitimate concerns for those he would seek to install in these highly consequential positions,” a number of groups, including the newly formed “FERC Vacancies Campaign,” wrote to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Also signing the letter were Green America, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Beyond Extreme Energy.

The groups, which are also meeting with members of the Senate panel next week, argue that Trump’s FERC picks — Neil Chatterjee, a top energy aide for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Pennsylvania regulator Robert Powelson — could be subject to “behind-the-scenes pressure” from the president.

FERC is led by acting Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur and Colette Honorable, both Democrats, who have been unable to make high-profile decisions since former FERC Chairman Norman Bay abruptly left in February, depriving the five-seat commission of a quorum.

“FERC’s role in protecting the U.S. energy grid is essential to our national security,” the groups told Murkowski. “Recent events regarding President Trump’s firing of FBI Director Comey, including his apparent demand for loyalty in how the Director carried out his decision making and activities as head of the FBI, heightens our alarm and concern.”

Their letter is part of a broader effort to align FERC critics with bipartisan fallout Trump is facing after the firing last week of FBI Director James Comey. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) urged the president to stop talking or tweeting about the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and allow the inquiry to move forward.

In their letter, the groups demanded Chatterjee and Powelson’s confirmation hearing be delayed until a hearing is held to investigate “multiple and documented reports” of what they say amounts to FERC misusing its authority to block challenges to federal pipeline approvals, rushing environmental assessments and unfairly granting eminent domain.
Delaware Riverkeeper has made similar arguments in court. In April, the group filed an appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, challenging a lower court’s decision to toss a lawsuit against FERC for its alleged bias toward approving pipelines (Energywire, April 21).

Despite calls for a delay in FERC confirmations, Murkowski last week said she’ll move “as quick as possible” to restore FERC’s quorum.

And Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the panel’s ranking member, said last week that she was unfamiliar with Powelson but planned to research his background. Cantwell also said she’d already had a brief conversation about “market manipulation” with Chatterjee. The FERC nominee had also helped Cantwell and Murkowski navigate energy conference talks with the House last year, the senator said.

Ted Glick, a member of Beyond Extreme Energy, acknowledged calls for a delay may not stick given the bipartisan push to re-establish FERC’s quorum and the agency’s ability to make high-profile decisions.

“We know it’s a long shot, we’re not stupid,” Glick said. “We also know it’s the right thing to do. Sooner or later, you start winning victories.”

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