Front-runner for FERC may be clean slate that Obama’s looking for
Colette Honorable, chairwoman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, is rumored to be a top contender to lead FERC. President Obama’s last nominee, Ron Binz, asked that his name be pulled earlier this month amid stiff opposition from the fossil industry and a tied vote on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Colette Honorable, the top contender to replace President Obama’s fallen nominee to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, gives the White House exactly what it’s looking for after a bloody, unsuccessful confirmation fight:
A clean slate
The chairwoman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission is known as an even-handed regulator, a moderate on energy issues and a strong community leader. The native of St. Louis and mother of one mentors young women through church, law school and her sorority and in April was honored by Just Communities of Arkansas for promoting equality, racial tolerance and justice.
“She strives to be an example to young women and girls to show that there is not any obstacle too great to overcome if you work at it, stick with it and fight the good fight,” Butch Reeves, a fellow commissioner on the Public Service Commission, said on the night of the award ceremony.
Honorable declined to be interviewed for this story. But if nominated, she could pave an easier path for the Obama administration to fill the top post at FERC in the wake of an extremely divisive battle that this week sunk the nomination of Ron Binz, who faced an unprecedented campaign mounted by conservative and libertarian groups with ties to the Koch brothers, resulting in a deadly tie vote on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Colleagues and energy groups in Arkansas say that in contrast to Binz, critics would have a hard time pegging Honorable as anti-coal
The PUC this summer approved a $408 million plan to retrofit the Flint Creek coal plant near Gentry, Ark., to comply with new U.S. EPA air standards.
Even though Glen Hooks, a senior campaigner for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, fought the plant based on economic and environmental reasons and lost, he concedes Honorable was fair. She’s been that way since they attended law school together in Arkansas years ago, he said.
“I thought our side was the winning argument, but I did feel heard,” Hooks said. “By the end of that thing, we were all ready to get a decision. I don’t doubt she heard everything we said and read through everything we submitted.”
She’s apparently giving equal time to renewables.
Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, a social justice organization, said the PUC under Honorable’s watch has been more focused on consumers and clean energy. “She’s definitely not an environmental wacko or a divisive figure,” he said. “She’s done things in a way that’s watched out for low-income ratepayers.”
But whether Honorable, who has been serving as PUC chairwoman since 2011, can match years of experience on energy and utilities issues logged by sitting Democratic FERC Commissioners Cheryl Lafleur and John Norris — who Obama could tap to lead the agency without Senate confirmation — or other potential candidates like Regina Speed-Bost, an attorney at the law firm Schiff Hardin with years of experience before FERC, is unclear.
Then again, even the opponents who successfully sunk Binz’s nomination say they may be on board if she’s nominated.
“There are reasons to be hopeful that she would bring certainly greater balance, integrity and consistency to FERC than Ron Binz would have,” said Benjamin Cole, a spokesman for the American Energy Alliance, an industry-affiliated group. “Looking at Arkansas’ record on power issues, it hasn’t forced renewables but lets the market work, there’s no [renewable portfolio standard], nothing to indicate she would bring the partisan bias or anti-carbon agenda to FERC.”
‘Part of someone else’
Even at a young age, Honorable, now 43, was showing signs of being a leader.
She was born in St. Louis with her identical twin, Coleen Jeter, who now lives in Atlanta.
The girls joined three older brothers and half-sister Pamela Smith, who would become a familiar face to Arkansas television viewers as co-host of “Good Morning Arkansas” and later take a position with the Little Rock School District.
Honorable’s parents, Joyce Dodson and the late Wallace Dodson, moved to California when the children were young and later moved back to Little Rock, Ark., after the two divorced, according to a June 29, 2008, article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
In elementary school, Honorable said, she began to find herself apart from her twin and quickly realized she was quite responsible, choosing at times to work inside instead of play at recess. “As a twin, you are a part of someone else for so long, but around that time I started to discover things about myself individually,” Honorable told the newspaper.
Honorable went on to attend Forest Heights Junior High and, later, Little Rock Central, where she was active in plays, Spanish language contests and cheerleading and served as president of the Future Business Leaders of America.
It was there that she would meet her future husband, Rickey Honorable, who now works as a mortgage loan officer at Regions Mortgage in Little Rock, according to the newspaper.
They met at a conference for Future Business Leaders of America and chatted about world events. Rickey asked her out.
“And I remember going home saying, ‘Mama! A senior asked me out!’” Honorable recalled.
When Honorable prepared for college, she had a desire to study business but heeded the advice of her father, who said she’d make a good lawyer, according to the newspaper. Honorable chose to stay close to home and attended Memphis State University, where she pledged at Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
She studied criminal justice and criminology during her undergraduate years and earned a law degree at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, William H. Bowen School of Law.
Hooks, the Sierra Club official who was a year behind Honorable in law school and later served as director of the state’s Democratic Party, said she kept her cool and positive attitude even in that stressful environment.
“She was just about everybody’s favorite person,” he said. “It’s a pretty competitive place.”
After graduating from law school, Honorable worked as assistant public defender in Jefferson County and later met Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — who was then running for state attorney general — and decided to introduce herself. Pryor had just finished an interview when Honorable decided to make her mark.
“I just stuck my hand out … ‘My name is Colette Honorable. You don’t know me, but I’m a lawyer and I live in Little Rock . … I know that you’re going to win, and when you do I want to work for you,’” Honorable said during an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Not too long after that, I ended up working for him.”
‘Can’t be pegged’
Honorable had a thriving legal career for more than 15 years and worked under Pryor — then attorney general — in civil litigation.
But it was her experience in energy that could bring her to Washington, D.C., and FERC.
Honorable remained at the attorney general’s office as it changed hands from Pryor to Mike Beebe (D), who went on to become governor. Honorable worked on his legislative team and later served as Beebe’s chief of staff.
In 2007, Beebe appointed Honorable to serve on the Arkansas Public Service Commission as a commissioner. But soon after, Paul Suskie, the chairman at the time, got orders that he would be deployed to Iraq with the Arkansas National Guard, and Honorable was designated interim chairwoman in 2008.
In 2011, Beebe appointed Honorable the state agency’s permanent chairwoman.
Sources who deal with her there describe her as fair and level-headed. They can’t remember a time when the PUC had a split vote.
“It’s not a position that she’s let go to her head — she’s very approachable, engaging, interested in what you think,” said Ken Smith, policy director at the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association. “I don’t think they’ve had a split decision yet.
Smith acknowledges Arkansas isn’t a leader in renewable energy. Like most Southeastern states — including Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee — Arkansas doesn’t have a renewable portfolio standard. Honorable and her colleagues would likely say that’s an issue that requires guidance from the Legislature, Smith said.
“The utilities don’t want a target for a state electricity standard,” he said. “They bring out all the bugaboos about renewable energy, and they have a strong influence on the Legislature. There’s been an effort to get [an RPS through] and they’ve failed.”
Even without a policy in place to direct renewables, Honorable has still made great strides to bolster energy efficiency and renewables, Smith said. The PUC recently ruled that entities can aggregate meters, which Smith said makes it more practical for the state government, universities, colleges and the city government to use more renewable energy.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it really moved renewable energy forward in the state,” he said.
And Honorable’s decision on the Flint Creek plant shows that she supports coal, although Smith said he was disappointed with the decision and the state should instead diversify by adding more wind and solar.
“She can’t be pegged as being anti-coal or pro-renewables,” he said
“She was chief of staff to our current governor, a solid, middle-of-the-road Blue Dog [Democrat]. She did a competent job,” he said. “I would argue with anyone that would call her a radical.”