As Murkowski pondered Binz’s fate, she relied on staffer who had case before him in Colo.
Patrick McCormick, Murkowski’s chief counsel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where she is ranking member, used to be an attorney with Hunton & Williams LLP. The firm represented coal giant Peabody Energy Corp. when the company was involved in a case before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and Binz was its chairman.
It seems unlikely that McCormick’s history with Binz ultimately had any bearing on Murkowski’s decision to oppose his nomination — Binz withdrew from consideration in early October as opposition grew in the Senate Energy Committee. Murkowski has said she objected to Binz’s actions as a regulator and statements he made during the confirmation process. In particular, the senator said Binz lied to her about his contacts with outside groups that were promoting his nomination.
“With me, it’s all about integrity,” Murkowski said at an event earlier this month. “This is an agency that is pretty critical, and every one of you in this room knows that who we have on the FERC is important.”
Still, McCormick’s Peabody connection shows just how close the ties between industry groups and the policymakers that oversee them can be — and may serve as a cautionary tale for Obama as he searches for someone else to head FERC, a regulatory agency that doesn’t always generate headlines but has become more prominent amid debates over America’s energy future.
Certainly, as the Senate Energy panel was preparing to consider Binz’s nomination, McCormick was more familiar with the nominee than just about anybody else on Capitol Hill. McCormick was an attorney for Peabody in 2010 and 2011 in a case before Binz’s PUC.
The top aide offered to recuse himself from being a part of Murkowski’s deliberations. But the senator said she wanted his and other people’s opinions — and Binz was apparently aware of the connection.
Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said, “As she has previously stated, Sen. Murkowski met with Mr. Binz and drew her own conclusion about whether he was qualified for the position of FERC chairman.”
At issue in the Colorado case was the state’s new “Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act.” Approved in 2010 with Binz’s backing, the law included tougher emission controls for power plants and a reduction in coal use for electricity production.
In proceedings before the PUC and Binz, Peabody argued in favor of keeping coal an important part of the state’s generation capacity as regulators mulled the new statute’s implementation.
“Colorado will likely make precipitous and wrong electric resource decisions that will prove costly to its present and future citizens,” Peabody said in a July 2010 filing.
Specifically, Peabody was responding to another filing by the Public Service Co. of Colorado, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy Inc., which supported the clean energy law and Binz’s nomination to lead FERC.
“A literal ‘dash to gas’ — without due process or consideration for the effect on consumers and the State’s economy — would cost Colorado and its citizens the ongoing and future benefits of Public Service’s current low cost fleet of base load electric generation fueled by nearby coal,” Peabody wrote in its filing.
Binz and his defenders have blamed conservative and pro-coal groups for killing his nomination. Their assertions fit into the narrative that Binz went after coal and that the industry, in turn, came back to get him.
But critics say Binz has only himself to blame. For one, opponents saw him as too much of a renewable energy activist, and they cite his efforts in Colorado as an example.
They also cite his working with environmental and business interests to win his own confirmation to head FERC, and the fact that he called an Xcel executive in 2010 to gauge support for his reappointment to the Colorado PUC.
Binz faced a unified opposition from Energy and Natural Resource Committee Republicans, including Murkowski, and strong concerns from Democrats like Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) had pledged to oppose the nominee.
“At the end of the day, opposition from Democratic members of the committee sank Mr. Binz’s nomination, so concern about his qualifications was a widely held view,” Dillon said. “The information about Mr. McCormick’s former interactions with Mr. Binz is a matter of public record.”
McCormick left Hunton & Williams and the Colorado PUC case — which remains ongoing — in April 2011 to join Murkowski’s staff as special counsel for Energy Committee Republicans. Records show he became chief counsel this year.
McCormick has represented numerous energy-related clients during his many years in law and lobbying, including Xcel Energy, FirstEnergy Corp. and Southern Co.
The website Legistorm, which compiles disclosure records and congressional staff activity, noted that McCormick took a significant pay cut when he jumped from Hunton to work on Capitol Hill.
Dan Adamson, Energy Chairman Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) senior counsel, used to be an executive at the Solar Energy Industries Association and was once a top official at FERC.
Another Wyden senior counsel, Todd Alan Wooten, is listed as having lobbied for American Electric Power Co. Inc. and the Coalition for Emission Reduction Projects while at Van Ness Feldman LLP.