FERC Nominee Approved Despite Murkowski’s Objection

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm two members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. One of those nominations was approved over the outspoken objection of Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski.

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, had two members confirmed on Tuesday.  Cheryl LaFleur, acting chair of the Commission, was approved in a 90-7 vote.  The vote for the second nominee, Norman Bay, had a much closer vote of 52-45.  The vote on Bay’s nomination fell along mostly partisan lines, though two Democrats did break ranks to vote with the Republican minority.  Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was one of the more vocal opponent’s of Norman Bay’s nomination.  Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy committee, says that part of her reason for opposing the nomination has to do with President Barack Obama’s intent to make Bay, a first time Commission member, the chairman of FERC.

Upper Valley residents may be familiar with FERC.  It is the agency that, among other things, licenses hydroelectric projects like the proposed Susitna dam.  That’s far from all there is, however. Senator Murkowski explained in a floor speech on Tuesday what else FERC does.

“In the energy world, FERC regulates ‘midstream everything.’ The Chairman is its CEO.  Under his or her leadership, FERC regulates: Interstate natural gas and oil pipelines; LNG import and export facilities; The sale of electricity at wholesale (and therefore the large and wholesale power markets that increasingly affect the affordability of all electric service, including at the retail level); The transmission of electricity in interstate commerce – basically the nation’s bulk power system, practically speaking, its high voltage transmission networks; The reliability of that bulk power system; The licensing of hydroelectric facilities and the safety of dams; And the list goes on and on. ”

Senator Murkowski contends that Norman Bay is not ready for the leadership role.  Bay has worked as an employee of FERC for five years.  Under a proposed compromise agreement, he would serve on the Commission for nine months before taking over as chair.  In the meantime, acting chair Cheryl LaFleur would head the agency.   Senator Murkowski says there isn’t certainty at this time as to what exactly would actually take place, however.

“You have to ask the question: What are its terms? Will Acting Chair LaFleur have the opportunity to serve fully and completely as chair? Will it be clear that Mr. Bay is not a ‘shadow chairman’ or ‘chairman-in-waiting’ during this crucial period? At a minimum, before we make a choice about who should lead FERC, the president owes senators a clear timeline of who will be in charge, and what powers will be given to her or him.”

Senator Murkowski also questioned the reason that Cheryl LaFleur, the Commission’s only female member, would be “demoted” in favor of someone who has never served.  She says that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated it has to do with changes to policies put in place by former FERC chair Jon Wellinghoff.

““One hint came from our Majority Leader, Sen. Reid. He recently told the Wall Street Journal that Ms. LaFleur ‘has done some stuff to do away with some of Wellinghoff’s stuff’ – without, of course, defining what ‘stuff’ that was, and without acknowledging that much of Mr. Wellinghoff’s ‘stuff’ was either controversial or incapable of withstanding legal challenge.”

Senator Murkowski also says that Norman Bay’s tenure as the head of FERC’s enforcement division has also raised questions.  In the past, she has said that she would not necessarily oppose Bay’s nomination were it not for President Obama’s plan to promote him to chair.  On Tuesday, however, she mentioned questions about Norman Bay’s handling of enforcement for FERC.  In the end, Bay’s nomination was confirmed, albeit not by a large margin.

While Senator Murkowski says she does not always agree with Acting FERC Chair Cheryl LaFleur, she does support her nomination to continue on the Commission.  Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Senator Murkowski, refers to LaFleur as a “liberal Democrat,”  but says that the Senator has been impressed by her ability to lead.

Who ultimately ends up as chair of FERC will be up to President Obama.