With Binz’s withdrawal, rumors surface that Obama will look for a less controversial choice to head FERC

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

A flurry of potential candidates to replace President Obama’s fallen nominee to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are surfacing, but exactly when the White House will choose another candidate to push through a gridlocked Congress remains unclear.

The front-runner is said to be Colette Honorable, chairwoman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, who will soon take the helm of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, according to one Democratic Senate aide.

Other names that have been mentioned to replace Ron Binz, a former Colorado regulator who withdrew yesterday (Greenwire, Oct. 1), include 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.

Speculation is also strong that Obama could tap a sitting Democratic FERC commissioner — Cheryl Lafleur or John Norris — to lead the agency permanently or until a more palatable time arrives to choose a chair. For now, FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff has vowed to stay put until his successor is confirmed.

Many of the names mentioned appear at first blush to fit the profile of candidates who may be successful in securing a nod of approval from Democrats on the Senate Energy Natural Resources Committee, which proved to be critical and yet elusive for Binz, who faced a deadly tie among the panel’s 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans after conservative think tanks and industry-related groups rallied against his pro-renewables stances.

Yesterday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the strongest coal supporters in the upper chamber, said he would support someone like Norris who supports an “all of the above” approach to energy, according to Jonathan Kott, a spokesman for the senator.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said during an interview on Capitol Hill yesterday that she was told weeks ago Binz would step aside and wasn’t surprised, and that she’s looking for someone “who has a balanced approach and that understands how important natural gas is to the future of this country and what kind of manufacturing renaissance it’s driving.”

The candidate also needs to understand “that with the right investments, both private and public, coal can be cleaned to a point where it can meet our new environmental standards,” she said. “Even though that’s not the crux of FERC’s job, that’s the attitude that I think someone should have.”

Landrieu’s comment on coal highlights the attacks that Binz faced during his confirmation process, and one of the challenges facing future FERC nominees.

The Colorado Mining Association in a statement called Binz’s withdrawal a “victory for good government” and blamed Binz’s misleading statements to the Senate committee for his trouble in getting confirmed. “Binz has only himself to blame,” CMA President Stuart Sanderson said in a statement. Sanderson added that it’s a “bittersweet day” for Colorado consumers who didn’t benefit from Binz’s work in Colorado that led Xcel to switch some of its plants from coal to gas.

Whether the controversy surrounding Binz’s stance on coal, natural gas and taste for renewables has cast out other greener candidates is yet to be seen. Sources said for that reason alone, Rose McKinney-James, a former commissioner with the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, a Las Vegas businesswoman, lobbyist and renewable energy consultant, may not be a safe pick.

ClearView Energy Partners LLC analyst Kevin Book in a note yesterday wrote that Obama is more likely to pick Lafleur to lead the agency, saying that she has fit into the administration’s “give a little, take a little approach” and Senate action would not be required to elevate her to chairwoman. Sources have also said it’s possible Obama could nominated someone else to succeed Lafleur when her term ends next summer, Book wrote. But Obama may be less inclined to tap Norris, who last month accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) of blocking his bid for the post for being too “pro-coal,” Book noted (E&E Daily, Sept. 17).

“We can’t find anyone who expects President Obama to snub Reid by naming him chairman now,” Book wrote.

Ark. regulator has no ‘predisposed ideas’ about energy 

Conservative groups, which played a huge role in Binz’s decision to withdraw, have remained mum on the names beginning to surface, including that of apparent front-runner Honorable.

An attorney in Arkansas who currently heads the state’s utilities commission, Honorable is “supremely well-suited” to take the helm of FERC and is very fair and balanced, with no “predisposed ideas” about energy resources, said Sandra Byrd, who served as the PUC’s chairwoman four years before Honorable arrived in 2011.

Byrd, who now serves as vice president of external affairs at Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., said Honorable is highly respected across the utility industry and is the state’s first PUC chairwoman to lead NARUC.

Byrd also said that although the commission members are quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial, “more than anything else, they serve as a judge” over energy matters.

Honorable, a native of Little Rock, Ark., had served as chief of staff for Gov. Mike Beebe (D) when he was attorney general. In 2011, Beebe appointed Honorable to chair the agency, where she had been serving as a commissioner since 2007 and interim chairwoman since 2008.

Sources also say Honorable hasn’t made any critical decisions that would provide fodder for attacks.

The outlook for Norris is not as clear.

Book in a note yesterday said it’s “widely believed” that Norris disqualified himself after accusing Reid of blocking his bid for the post for being too “pro-coal.”

Even so, sources say that characterization of Norris, who spent more than three decades running high-profile political campaigns in his home state of Iowa and once ran for Congress himself, is far from true.

Norris said Reid’s opposition was based on a vote he took while chairing the Iowa Utilities Board from 2005 to 2009 and that he told Reid it was a “mischaracterization of my record” to peg him as a proponent of coal and “requested an apology.” A spokeswoman for Reid has accused Norris of “wrongly blaming others.”

Sources pointed to Norris’ vote in 2004 to approve Alliant Energy Corp.’s coal-fired power plant in Marshalltown, Iowa. At the time, the agency also cited the coal plant as part of the agreement to use biomass over time, which Norris said would reduce “the burden of risk for consumers and provides continued incentive for wind and renewable energy, not only at this plant but throughout their entire fleet in Iowa, while adding generation for the company’s customer base to support reliability” (E&E Daily, Aug. 3, 2009).

The push toward renewables and Alliant’s decision to scrap the project altogether show that Norris shouldn’t be pegged as pro-coal, said Nathaniel Baer, director of the energy program at the Iowa Environmental Council since 2007 and an opponent of Alliant’s project.

“We wanted the strongest possible signal that a new coal plant wasn’t viable, and they provided the next-best option, that ‘We’ll approve it, but with significant conditions, and put the burden on the company,’” Baer said. “I wouldn’t call him pro-coal.”

Neila Seaman, director of the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter, who fought Alliant’s project, agreed.

“I don’t know where Reid would have gotten that from, but I wouldn’t classify John Norris as ‘pro-coal,’” she said.