Manchin to oppose Obama’s energy nominee

Michael Bastasch | Energy Editor

West Virginia’s coal industry has taken such a hit from environmental regulations that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has decided to buck President Obama. Manchin announced Wednesday that he will oppose Ron Binz, the president’s pick to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

“Based on Mr. Binz’s record in Colorado, I have grave concerns about how he would regulate our energy sector as the next Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” said Manchin in a statement. “Mr. Binz’s actions prove that he prioritizes renewables over reliability.”

“His approach of demonizing coal and gas has increased electricity costs for consumers,” the senator added. “I believe Mr. Binz’s record is unacceptable for a FERC Chairman.”

Manchin vented his frustrations during a Senate hearing regarding the nominees, grilling Binz over the future of coal.

“We’re getting the living crap beaten out of us,” Manchin said during a Senate confirmation hearing.

Former Colorado utilities regulator Binz has been a controversial pick to head up FERC because of his past support for renewable energy while he served the Centennial State.

FERC serves as the nation’s utility regulator and has authority over electric grids, gas pipelines, natural gas export terminals and hydroelectric power plants. It is considered independent from the president and the commission’s chairman can establish initiatives that can eventually become mandatory rules, affecting 70 percent of the electrical generation in the U.S.

While in Colorado, Binz came under fire for his role promoting a renewable energy law that resulted in the closing of six coal-fired power plants in order to convert them into natural gas burning plants. Binz strongly supported the Clean Air, Clean Jobs, which intended to move the state away from coal power towards renewable energy and natural gas.

“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.

This is not something that sits well with West Virginia coal supporters, and Manchin is under pressure from his constituents to do more to stop the Obama administration from regulating the coal industry out of business.

“West Virginia families are already hurting because of President Obama’s policies and allowing him to hammer through the appointment of yet another person with a proven anti-coal record could have a calamitous effect,” writes Conrad Lucas in the Charleston Daily Mail. “Let’s hope Sen. Manchin has the courage to vote against an enemy of coal, as our Republican leaders in West Virginia have done when called to defend our jobs.”

Binz has also been an advocate for decarbonizing the economy. At a conference in March 2013, Binz said that even natural gas — often touted as a “bridge fuel” to a low-carbon economy by environmentalists — was a “dead end.”

“On a carbon basis, you hit the wall in 2035 or so with gas. I mean, you do,” Binz said. “And it’s certainly helping my state [Colorado]…but we also have to understand that without [carbon capture and storage], I think that’s a dead end, a relative dead end—it won’t dead end until 2035 or so—but that’s when we’re going to have to do better on carbon than even natural gas can do.”

Coal produces about twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and technology required to significantly decarbonize coal is not commercially proven.

Fears that Binz could use his power at FERC to regulate coal were nevertheless downplayed by Democrats.

“FERC has no authority to regulate coal,” said Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden during Binz’s hearing, adding that there would be “no backdoor taxes on coal.”

“I fully embrace the use of natural gas. I’ve said that in many speeches over many years,” Binz said during his hearing, soothing fears from critics that he wanted to decarbonize the economy.

Republicans remain unpersuaded that Binz is the right fit to head FERC.

“I am not convinced your views are compatible with FERC’s mission,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is opposing Binz’s confirmation. “You’ve effectively got a shadow team of lobbyists and PR experts that have been helping throughout.”

“I’m not comfortable with furthering an anti-carbon agenda at the expense of consumers, which is why I plan to oppose Mr. Binz’s nomination,” said Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller in a statement.

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