The nation's utility regulator is losing its Republican commissioners, in a GOP hemorrhage that doesn't look like it will be corrected any time soon.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, charged with governing the nation's electricity supply and reliability, is supposed to be comprised of an equal share of Republicans and Democrats as part of a five-member panel, with the chairman holding the party of whomever is in the Oval Office. Most believe a fully staffed commission functions the best, no matter the party in control.
But the Republicans on the commission have been dropping off, beginning with the long-serving Philip Moeller, who moved on last year after serving since the George W. Bush administration. He is now with the Edison Electric Institute, representing the investor-owned utility industry.
Commissioner Tony Clark is the next to go. Clark announced via Twitter a week ago that he would not seek another term on the commission. His term ends at the end of June, after serving a five-year term. His office confirmed his planned departure.
The problem is that President Obama doesn't appear concerned about replacing them. The president, after receiving recommendations from the congressional leadership, will nominate both GOP and Democratic members to the commission. In Moeller's case, the now-former commissioner announced his intent to leave in October and left at the end of that month. But no replacement has been announced.
One reason could be the problems Obama has faced in appointing new Democratic members to head the commission, two of whom faced strong objections by the GOP over issues related to climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency's greenhouse gas rules for power plants, and heavy-handedness in pursuing enforcement cases against the energy industry.
Moeller and Clark didn't go out of their way to butt heads with the Democratic chairman, but did have outspoken opinions on the role of the commission in examining reliability issues and the possibility of power outages stemming from EPA rules. Members of both parties on the commission agreed before the EPA's Clean Power Plan was finalized to endorse a so-called "safety valve," which they recommended the agency include in its final rule.
The final EPA climate rule, which is the centerpiece of Obama's climate change agenda, included the safety valve measure, which takes into account the possibility of plant closures causing power outages, and would allow coal- and oil-fired plants to remain operating if a risk is determined. EPA and FERC also are supposed to coordinate in evaluating the reliability impact of state plans once they are submitted.
The Clean Power Plan requires states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions a third by 2030. They most submit plans to the EPA on how they plan to do that later this year. Each plan will contain a different set of measures, including power plant closures, that EPA will have to sign off for a state to comply. The commission will be evaluating those state plans for possible threats to reliability.
But it is not clear what an imbalanced commission will mean as states move to develop their plans. Will it mean a rubber stamp in favor of the Clean Power Plan? Observers say the commission under Democratic Chairman Norman Bay appears to be upping the commission's enforcement role and looking for market manipulation in the natural gas markets.
Some states involved in the fracking boom complain that Bay is holding up vital pipeline development for natural gas, since the commission is the primary authority for approving interstate natural gas pipelines.
A Jan. 6 editorial in the Exponent Telegram newspaper in West Virginia cites Corky DeMarco, executive director of the state Oil and Natural Gas Association, who said in an interview that, "They should have approved some of them already. They've been sitting over at FERC long enough." The editorial points out that Obama nominated Bay to chair FERC, but "Since Bay's appointment, DeMarco noted, no new pipeline has been approved."
DeMarco said billions of dollars would be injected into the economy from six pipelines under consideration at the commission.
"Let's hope that West Virginia's six interstate pipelines doesn't suffer the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama has effectively killed for the time being," the editorial says. The Marcellus Shale gas region, in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, "is widely seen as a game-changer for our nation's energy independence," it adds.