Binz ends troubled FERC bid, blasts critics for engaging in ‘blood sport’

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 2, 2013

President Obama’s pick to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has asked that his name be yanked from consideration, citing a deadlocked Senate panel and stiff opposition from right-wing groups that turned the confirmation process into a “blood sport.”

“I think it’s a cautionary tale because you don’t want agencies like the FERC to be subjected to this kind of political blood sport, which is what it became,” Ron Binz said during an interview today. “There was a very large coalition of right-wing groups who coalesced to oppose me.”

Obama tapped Binz, a former Colorado regulator, to lead FERC in June and replace outgoing FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff for a five-year term at the agency’s helm. The Arkansas native was a familiar face in the electric sector who had taken on big business in the telecommunication and energy industries and established Colorado’s first office for consumer advocacy.

But Binz said his nomination soon became a target of opposition for “far right” groups that he maintains misrepresented him.

Groups like the libertarian-leaning American Energy Alliance argued that Binz was part of the Obama administration’s plans to tackle climate change through regulatory actions that end-run Congress. Those groups focused on Binz’s work to implement Colorado’s contentious “Clean Air, Clean Jobs” legislation while chairing the Colorado Public Utilities Commission from 2007 to 2011.

Earlier this week, Binz asked Obama in a letter to pull his name from the process, noting that his nomination would not be favorably reported by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

All Republicans on the Senate committee and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) last month vowed to oppose Binz for his views on coal and natural gas and said they had questions about how he would lead the agency (E&E Daily, Sept. 26).

Binz also thanked Obama for advancing climate legislation and said it’s critical that the next FERC nominee be focused on ensuring clean energy plays a strong role in the nation’s energy portfolio. He now plans to continue work at Public Policy Consulting in Denver, where he guides clients — the Energy Department, Dow Solar, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Conservation Colorado — on issues like climate, clean technology, integrated resource planning and “smart grid” technology.

Binz’s confirmation drew a flurry of unprecedented activity around FERC, an independent agency usually outside of Beltway politics and better known for complex regulatory decisions related to the electric grid, gas pipelines, liquefied natural gas export terminals and hydroelectric projects.

Pitted against conservative groups was the Green Tech Action Fund, which hired politically connected public relations firm VennSquared Communications to promote Binz.

Ultimately, Binz said that he didn’t recognize the caricature of himself that opponents portrayed in Washington, D.C., and that he couldn’t fight back because he was maneuvering the confirmation process. “They were able to successfully completely misrepresent me,” Binz said. “I’m disappointed not to be able to join FERC, but in the larger picture I think it’s disturbing that industries like the coal industry have decided to spend their money going after presidential nominees.”

The decision today has sparked rumors about whether Obama will appoint a new chairman or a new member of the commission.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement today that Binz is well qualified to lead the agency and his decision to step aside is unfortunate. “The next nominee should be judged on his or her merits, and not on organized PR campaigns, either for or against,” Wyden said.

One safe and likely bet for Obama would be Colette Honorable, chairwoman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, who will soon take the helm of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, sources said. Another potential candidate is Regina Speed-Bost, an attorney at the law firm Schiff Hardin who specializes in energy administrative and regulatory law and began her career as a trial attorney in FERC’s enforcement division.

Obama could also appoint one of the two Democratic FERC commissioners, John Norris or Cheryl Lafleur, to lead the agency. Norris has expressed interest in the position and last month accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) of blocking his bid for the post for being too “pro-coal,” an assertion the majority leader has rejected (E&E Daily, Sept. 17).

Controversy surrounding Binz, however, appears to have cast doubt over the potential nomination of Rose McKinney-James, a former commissioner with the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, a Las Vegas businesswoman, lobbyist and renewable energy consultant, who sources said could draw criticism for pushing for renewables.

Whoever Obama picks, Binz said he’s concerned the process could be overtaken by political messaging on unrelated issues.

“My nomination became a proxy fight for a lot of other issues the coal industry cares about,” he said. “That all got rolled up into one big fight, and I came out on the [losing] end.”

‘Only himself to blame’

Exactly what sunk Binz’s nomination depends on who you ask.

Binz maintains it’s clear cut.

“I think the story is fairly straightforward in that they decided to oppose me and just like a political campaign, they developed the tactics which were mainly, ‘Don’t let anybody see the real Ron Binz,’” he said.

Binz rejected assertions made in the editorial page of The Denver Post that he lied to Manchin when saying he approved Colorado’s largest coal plant — the Comanche plant near Pueblo, Colo. — during his confirmation hearing. The plant received a license in 2004, but Binz didn’t serve on the utility commission until years later, when he thwarted several attempts to end construction of the plant and the utility’s recouping costs through electricity rates (E&E Daily, Sept. 24).

“I never meant to suggest I was the only one who dealt with this plant,” Binz said.

Binz also rejected the notion that he lied to Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) about his coordination with outside parties during the confirmation process.

Murkowski said Binz told her during a private meeting “there was no coordination with anyone outside of FERC,” but emails later obtained by the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic and the Independence Institute in Colorado through a Freedom of Information Act request from FERC showed Binz communicating with VennSquared President Michael Meehan, who has close ties to Senate Democratic leaders; lobbyists; former aides to Reid; Jeffrey Stephens, a senior confirmation adviser at the White House; and FERC officials.

But Binz said he told Murkowski’s staff about the ongoing coordination and was surprised by her announcement at the confirmation hearing.

“I don’t know what happened, I really don’t,” Binz said. “I communicated with her staff, I had a meeting with her staff before I met with her, I know I was completely open with them about this.”

The coal industry, including mining companies and utilities, are pushing back against the notion that King Coal killed the Binz nomination.

Luke Popovich, external communications vice president for the National Mining Association, said the group took no position in the debate.

Others who represent the industry in Washington, D.C., say quietly that claims of coal’s involvement in the issue are vastly overblown.

While Binz did anger coal and natural gas interests with his dogged preference for renewables, he also upset other power players in his home state of Colorado. Critics see him as an activist rather than an impartial regulator.

“What matters is whether it was proper for Binz to help craft highly controversial legislation in 2010 whose implementation he would then, as a key regulator, be charged with overseeing in the midst of competing claims,” said an editorial in The Denver Post. “The coal industry insisted it was not proper, and with good reason.”

It added that “surely it is not difficult these days to find a big proponent of renewable energy for a federal job — and yet one who hasn’t compiled quite so many red flags during his career.”

Groups like the Institute for Energy Research and the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic also expressed concern about Binz, not only because of his views on coal, but because they felt he would use his perch to push an agenda.

Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, responded to Binz’s withdrawal by saying, “Binz has only himself to blame.”

Reporter Manuel Quiñones contributed.