Fight erupts over Obama’s pick for top US utility regulator

Green groups are gearing up for a fight with free-market organizations and the coal industry over President Obama’s pick to head the Federal Energy Regulation Commission.

In June, Obama announced he was nominating Ron Binz to head up FERC, which regulates electric grids, gas pipelines, natural gas export terminals and hydroelectric power plants.

Yet Binz’s tenure as the head of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission from 2007 to 2011 was controversial.

“Ron Binz has the temperament and experience needed to lead FERC and continue the agency’s important initiatives to expand and modernize the nation’s electricity infrastructure,” said Rob Gramlich, senior vice president of energy policy for the American Wind Energy Association.

“Ron Binz has the experience and vision needed to help America ramp up the transition to clean energy sources, including solar,” added Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Green groups are pushing Binz’s nomination, taking unusual steps to ensure that it goes through. Green Tech Action Fund hired the public relations firm VennSquared Communications to support Binz’s nomination.

Support for Binz among environmentalists has mainly focused on his advocacy for renewable energy and energy efficiency, but free-market groups are critical of his activism while serving as Colorado’s top regulator.

“FERC was a sleepy regulator until the Obama Presidency, but it has statutory powers that could be turned into anticarbon weapons, such as the authority to impose fines of up $1 million per day for what it claims are violations,” writes the Wall Street Journal editorial page. “They also include the power to block energy mergers and the construction of terminals, pipelines and transmission.”

“I saw the commission not simply as an umpire calling balls and strikes, but also as a leader on policy implementation,” Binz said in an interview.

In particular, Binz opponents point to his role as frontman of a legislative effort to shut down coal-fired power plants in the state.

“In Colorado, Binz actually participated in the crafting of legislation that mandated fuel switching from coal to gas for 1,000 megawatts of electricity generation, at a significant cost to consumers,” said William Yeatman, energy policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Independence Institute. “He’s fully on-board with the president’s war on coal.”

Colorado’s “Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act” aimed to move the Boulder State away from coal power and towards cleaner energy. Binz took the lead in promoting this proposal, which offered incentives to companies for closing down older coal plants and switching over to burn natural gas. The bill included a $1.3 billion plan for Xcel Energy to make this switch.