Trump’s FERC Inaction Continues, Suggesting a Policy

An old saw among Washington’s large class of political cynics, reflecting decades of gridlock, goes, “Democrats can’t be trusted to govern. Republicans are incapable of governing.” The Trump administration so far is proving the cynics right.

Exhibit 1 is the obscure but powerful Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, nominally part of the Department of Energy but effectively a stand-alone regulatory agency. The Trump administration’s inattention to FERC in its first three months amounts to political negligence. I once questioned whether it was intent or incompetence driving the FERC inactivity. I now believe that the administration’s treatment of FERC is intentional.

The only action the Trump administration has taken with regard to FERC was to demote Norman Bay as chairman, naming Cheryl LaFleur as acting chairman. The wise guys in the White House who came up with that move had to know that Bay would immediately resign. I have some suspects, but I won’t name them here. Bay resigned. That left the commission with only two of five members, unable to act without a quorum.

Since then, it appears to be a Trump policy of malign neglect. There have been rumors floated about replacement nominations to fill the vacancies – mostly surfaced by backers of particular nominees with no indication that the White House is actually paying any attention. The same appears to be going on at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, although that agency still has a quorum.

Most recently, FERC Commissioner Colette Honorable, a Democrat and a former Arkansas state utility regulator, announced she would not seek a second five-year term when her appointment is up at the end of June. Unless the Trump administration acts before then – which doesn’t appear likely given the track record so far – FERC will be left with one member, LaFleur, and a largely hollow energy agency.

Getting four new commissioners nominated and confirmed by the Senate could take well into the end of this year and perhaps into 2018. What are these people thinking? Are they thinking at all?

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said this week, “It’s pretty tough to make things happen if you can’t get your permits moved through FERC. “Whether it’s pipeline development or a hydro facility, nothing’s happening. The president has said he wants to move out on infrastructure — well a lot of this infrastructure won’t happen if you don’t have a functioning FERC.”

This is gas pipeline infrastructure (courtesy of FERC)

This is gas pipeline infrastructure (courtesy of FERC)

Could it be that the “regulatory” part of the commission’s name has spooked the White House’s naïve and ideological newcomers? I doubt it, as there are experienced folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue advising the administration on energy issues. Could it be that somebody in the administration secretly supports stifling certification of natural gas pipelines and natural gas exports? Unlikely.

What’s left? Either a bumbling, stumbling, mumbling White House, or a hidden agenda. I initially suspected incompetence, which matches well with other aspects of the new administration’s performance.

But I’ve come to lean toward intention. But now I suspect a positive conspiracy. But the only problem with this conspiracy theory is that I can’t say why, other than the self-proclaimed goal of Trump strategist Steve Bannon to “deconstruct the administrated state.” Is there a way to dope-slap the Trump administration and get FERC a quorum? I doubt it, with the track record so far.

One approach might get the White House’s attention: If LaFleur were to announced that she would resign her appointment, which runs to 2019, when Honorable’s appoint ends in June. That would leave the commission without a commission.

Would that embarrassment push the Trump administration to action? Maybe worth a try? On the other hand, Bannon might grin satanically.

Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon