FERC GOP Majority Flexes Partisan Muscles for PURPA Reform

The newly empowered Republican majority on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) flexed its administrative muscles Sept. 19 at its regular monthly meeting, voting 2–1 to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking (NOPR) to reform rules pertaining to the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA).

It was FERC’s first public meeting since July, when the commission still had a partisan standoff in place for nearly a year. After Democratic FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur left the commission at the end of August, Commissioner Richard Glick became the sole Democrat on the commission, facing two Republicans, Chairman Neil Chatterjee and Bernard McNamee. For the first time in nearly a year, the Republicans now control the generally non-partisan commission.

At the September meeting, Glick dissented in whole or in part in five items on the docket—an unusual amount of dissents—but all of which raised the significant policy differences between the two partisan forces. The most significant item was Glick’s partial dissent on the commission’s 2–1 approval of the NOPR to change how FERC will implement the 40-year-old PURPA. FERC adopted its current regulations in 1980, two years after Congress passed the law designed to boost small, renewable energy projects and natural gas cogeneration.

The electric utility industry and state utility regulators have been pushing for over a year for FERC to revise its rules, which mandate actions and procedures that many in the industry find burdensome. Chatterjee has made it clear since he became chairman that reforming the PURPA rules was one of his top priorities. It was also the priority of his predecessor, the late Chairman Kevin McIntyre, appointed to head the commission when the Trump administration took over the executive branch in 2017. He died before the commission could get the item on the agency’s agenda.

The commission was unable to act when both LaFleur and Glick opposed to the broad policy reform the GOP had in mind. Once Chatterjee had a majority, at the September meeting, PURPA reform was the top item.

Chatterjee said, “PURPA laid the foundation for the Commission’s open access transmission policies and the competitive wholesale power markets that we have today. But a lot has changed since 1980. We have seen tremendous technological advancements in renewables, increasing sophistication in competitive electric power markets, and abundant supplies of domestic natural gas. It’s time to modernize the Commission’s implementation of PURPA to reflect those significant developments.”

Glick’s decorous dissent was also pointed. He accused the commission of executive overreach, saying that Chatterjee’s observation about changes in the industry, while accurate, “doesn’t provide an excuse for standing in the place of Congress.” He said later, “I dissent (in part) on PURPA because a significant portion of the NOPR represents an attempt to administratively gut the statute. This is a job for Congress, not FERC.”

In his dissent to a pipeline order at the meeting, Glick noted McNamee had said FERC shouldn’t act to include mitigation of greenhouse gases in it pipeline orders because Congress has repeatedly refused to enact greenhouse gas emissions reductions legislation. “We are not allowed to get in the way because industry has problems,” he said. He added that he and LaFleur had worked to propose a compromise. That fell through when she left the commission.

— Kennedy Maize is a long-time energy journalist and frequent contributor to POWER.