Trump Nominee Could Make Or Break A Proposal To Bail Out Struggling Coal Plants

Jason Hopkins | Energy Investigator

President Donald Trump’s expected pick for an empty seat on a regulatory committee could prove pivotal in determining whether failing coal and nuclear plants are given a lifeline.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Committee, a five-member body that regulates crude oil pipelines and the U.S. electricity market, is one member short after the departure of Robert Powelson. While Powelson was a Republican member who green-lighted pipeline projects much more prolifically than his Democratic colleagues, he was not always in lockstep with the Trump administration — particularly in the case of a White House proposal to keep financially struggling coal and nuclear plants operational. However, the president’s expected pick might be more in favor of such an idea.

Trump is expected to nominate Bernard McNamee for the position. McNamee currently heads the Department of Energy’s public policy office, where he has been since May. He previously lead the Tenth Amendment Center at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. During his time at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, McNamee wrote an Earth Day column that touted the benefits of fossil fuels.

While they are both Republicans, McNamee differs from the man he is expected to replace in that he is much more open to government intervention of the electricity market on behalf of failing power plants. In fact, he was involved in the Department of Energy’s earlier plan to bail out coal and nuclear facilities, but that proposal was rejected by FERC in January.

Now a new plan has been circulating, and McNamee’s appointment to FERC could be the deciding factor in whether the White House is able to push it through the finish line. Under the draft proposal, the White House would use emergency authority to require electricity providers purchase from struggling coal and nuclear power companies. This arrangement would last for two years while the government conducts a study on the changing U.S. electricity market. (RELATED: Green Energy Advocates Criticize Trump Plan To Save Coal And Nuclear)

However, energy experts who are familiar with McNamee describe him as a principled thinker who would approach every decision with an objective viewpoint, and would not serve as a “rubber stamp” for the White House.

“If the Trump administration’s goal is to politicize FERC, they picked the wrong person,” said Kenny Stein, director of policy and federal affairs for the American Energy Alliance, referring to McNamee, in a statement to the Washington Examiner. “He has decades of experience doing filings with FERC, going before FERC. He is very familiar with independent role of the commission. So I won’t expect him to try to upend the commission, or its process or goals.”

Others echoed similar statements.

FERC will likely keep its Republican majority for as long as the GOP maintains control of the White House. However, rules stipulate that the five-member regulatory committee is not allowed to have more than three members of the same party at any given time.

There are attempts from environmental groups to keep the seat vacant, leaving FERC with a 2-2 partisan split, effectively stonewalling any new pipeline approvals. VOICES (Victory Over InFRACKstructure, Clean Energy Instead) sent a letter to the Senate on Aug. 9 imploring them not to vote on McNamee’s nomination.

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