Obama energy nominee stopped in his tracks

Michael Bastasch | Energy Editor

A bipartisan Senate coalition has arisen to halt the nomination of President Obama’s pick to be the country’s top energy regulator. Now with no hope of getting support from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, the Obama administration is considering other candidates.

Democrats and Republicans have banded together over concerns that Ron Binz, Obama’s choice to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, will use his position as a platform to push renewable energy use and anti-fossil fuel policies.

Bloomberg reported on Thursday that a spokesman for Sen. Tim Scott said the South Carolina Republican “is now a ‘no’ vote on the nomination.”

Scott is the last Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to announce his opposition to Binz’s nomination. This along with a “no” vote from West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin means Binz doesn’t have enough support to get the committee to recommend him for a Senate vote.

Reports have circulated that the White House is considering other candidates to head up FERC.

“The committee is aware other candidates are being considered for FERC,” a spokesman for Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the ENR committee, told E&E News.

However, a FERC spokeswoman told Politico that it’s “not true” that Binz had dropped out of the running. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could also attempt to push Binz through the Senate for a vote without committee support.

“Ron Binz was the wrong nominee at the worst possible time for American consumers. His record of radical advocacy and regulatory bias was too much to overcome, even for Harry Reid’s rubber-stamp Senate,” said Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance which opposed Binz’s confirmation.

Some Republicans have been using Binz’s purported anti-coal, pro-renewable stance to pressure Democrats into opposing his nomination. Louisiana House Republicans put Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu on the spot yesterday by asking her to not support Binz. Republican Sen. David Vitter also asked his fellow Louisiana senator to vote no on Binz.

“Going forward, the White House would be well-advised to nominate only the most impartial and balanced regulators to serve on independent commissions,” Pyle said. “Senator Harry Reid would be well-advised to stop pushing his controversial hand-picked candidates. And Tom Steyer would be well-advised to stop hiring lobbyists and expensive public relations firms to promote anti-carbon zealots for the nation’s top energy posts.”

FERC regulates the country’s electric grids, gas pipelines, natural gas export terminals and hydroelectric power plants. The commission is independent from the president and the FERC chairman can establish initiatives that can eventually become mandatory rules, affecting 70 percent of the electrical generation in the U.S.

While the post is generally non-controversial, Binz’s nomination has encountered fierce resistance from both sides of the aisle over his past of actively promoting renewable energy use while he was Colorado’s top utilities regulator.

Binz came under fire for his role promoting a renewable energy law that resulted in the closing of six Colorado coal-fired power plants in order to convert them into natural gas burning plants.

“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.

Republicans have been particularly concerned with Binz’s support from environmental groups, who hired a public relations firm to promote his confirmation to FERC. Green Tech Action Fund hired the public relations firm VennSquared Communications to support Binz’s nomination.

“I predicted there was going to be a fight,” Binz said in front of the Senate.

“You’ve effectively got a shadow team of lobbyists and PR experts that have been helping throughout,” Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski told Binz in the same hearing.

Senators were also concerned over Binz’s past remarks on fossil fuels. 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.”

Democrats downplayed FERC’s ability to regulate coal and promote renewable sources on the electrical grid at the expense of fossil fuels.

“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.

Binz’s opponents point out that while FERC has no direct authority over coal or fossil fuels, there are many indirect ways the commission can affect which fuels are used to power the country.

A recent FERC order driven by the current chairman has been much friendlier remote energy sources like wind and solar as opposed to source like coal which can be cited anywhere. In doing this, FERC spread out the transmission costs of remote and more intermittent energy projects.

“Stopping the Binz nomination was about more than a single regulator or a single commission. It was about American consumers and promoting affordable energy solutions for our nation’s ratepayers,” Pyle said. “The Obama Climate Action Plan is about restricting access to America’s vast resources of coal and natural gas, which together supply approximately two-thirds of our nation’s affordable electricity. Ron Binz was only a part of that plan, and today’s announcement in no way means that the White House is backing down.”

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