President Trump on Monday made two nominations to fill vacancies at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which, if confirmed, would restore the agency’s quorum and ability to take action. Neither nominee was a surprise. Both names had long circulated in Washington. The mystery was why it took so long—three months—for the administration to fill crucial infrastructure jobs at the obscure but powerful regulatory agency.
The Trump nominees are Neil Chatterjee, for a term ending June 30, 2021, and Robert Powelson, for a term that expires on June 30, 2020. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the nominees will put FERC back into business. The agency, which has authority to approve natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas terminals, has been stymied since early in the Trump administration, when the White House demoted the chairman, Norman Bay, and named commissioner Cheryl LaFleur acting chairman. Bay resigned leaving FERC with two Democratic commissioners in place and no quorum.
Washington natural gas lobbying groups have been pressing the White House to fill vacancies at FERC. The American Petroleum Institute, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America have been pressing the Trump administration to get FERC up and running. “Shovel-ready, natural gas pipeline projects are stranded on the sidelines,” Don Santa, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said in a statement. “To build this infrastructure, we need a functioning FERC.”
Both Chatterjee and Powelson are Republicans, although they have very different backgrounds. Both are strong supporters of natural gas and siting natural gas pipelines to move gas to market. That’s also the case with sitting FERC commissioners LaFleur and Colette Honorable.
Chatterjee, an Indian-American, has been Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) chief energy aide for several years. He was the key McConnell staffer on Republican plans to scuttle the Obama Clean Power Plant to reduce CO2 emission from coal-fired power plants. Before joining McConnell’s staff, Chatterjee worked as a lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Chatterjee is a lawyer and began his career with the House Ways and Means Committee. He drives a hybrid gasoline-electric car.
Powelson, a Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission member since 2008 and currently president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, is a Republican energy regulator with a broad background and support from a wide group of energy interests. He has been appointed and reappointed by Democratic and Republican Keystone State governors. He also serves on the board of the Electric Power Research Institute and the Drexel University trustees. He has degrees in administration from St. Joseph’s University and the University of Pennsylvania.
Neither nominee is likely to face serious opposition in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee or on the Senate floor. If confirmed, FERC will have two Democrats and two Republicans at the commission, which seldom has partisan disputes. One seat remains open, and another, Honorable’s, becomes vacant June 30, as she has announced she is not seeking a second five-year term. By law, FERC consists of three members of the president’s party and two from the minority party. That means the White House will be able to nominate another Republican and a Democrat when Honorable leaves the commission.
— Kennedy Maize is a long-time energy journalist and frequent contributor to POWER