A job that typically receives minimal congressional scrutiny has become a flashpoint in the brewing battle over President Obama’s ambitious green-energy agenda.
In Ron Binz, Obama’s nominee for chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Republicans and industry advocates see somebody who embodies the president’s efforts to sidestep Congress on climate-change policy.
FERC, an independent commission of five members, regulates the interstate transmission of natural gas, oil and electricity; handles proposals to build natural gas pipelines; and does licensing for hydropower projects.
Critics of Binz say a FERC driven by environmental concerns could scuttle pipeline projects and impose fines on energy companies that don’t meet the commission’s standards.
They point to the ongoing State Department review of the Keystone XL pipeline — the longest government evaluation of such a project— as a model for how FERC might operate under Binz. (State is reviewing Keystone because it crosses the Canadian border, but FERC could do a similar slow walk on domestic-pipeline applications.)
“You could see the Keystone-ing of every fossil-fuel pipeline,” said Benjamin Cole of the industry group Institute for Energy Research. “If FERC doesn’t allow it to happen, it never gets built. It’s the specter of the ever-contemplative regulator who never takes action on anything unless it’s renewables.”
Binz, 64, has decades of energy-related experience, although his appointment is atypical in that he hasn’t already served on FERC.
He directed Colorado’s Office of Consumer Counsel between 1984 and 1995, was president of the nonprofit Competition Policy Institute from 1996 to 2003 and was chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission from 2007 to 2011. In recent years, he was a consultant and policy adviser on energy issues.
An Arkansas native, he obtained an undergraduate degree from St. Louis University and a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Colorado.
Critics are targeting his lengthy tenure in Colorado, accusing him of raising consumer costs by essentially forcing coal plants to shut down or switch to natural gas, which also benefitted the green-friendly businesses he was regulating.
Republican staffers have flagged controversial statements he has made about the role of government regulators and the nation’s transition to renewable energy sources.
He told the Edison Foundation in March that natural gas was a “dead end” unless it became even cleaner.
And of his time regulating Colorado power plants, Binz told a trade group, "I saw the commission not simply as an umpire calling balls and strikes, but also as a leader on policy implementation."
Conservatives view such statements with suspicion, especially after Obama instructed new Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy to develop rules limiting carbon emissions from current power plants.
The Green Tech Action Fund hired VennSquared Communications, a D.C. consulting firm, to push Binz’s cause. The move raised concerns among lawmakers now poring over Binz’s work.
“What do they expect to get for all that lobbying?” asked Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will review Binz’s nomination.
“FERC is not the Department of Energy or the EPA,” Dillon added. “It should not be part of the president’s climate agenda. Being an activist is not appropriate — and there are real concerns about how [Binz] views the role.”
Binz has avoided interviews since being nominated by Obama and did not respond to requests for comment from the Washington Examiner.
But those familiar with the inner workings of FERC are accusing critics of exaggerating Binz’s clout.
“This is not regulation by whimsy,” said Nora Mead Brownell, a FERC commissioner who served under President George W. Bush. “This idea that one human could come in and somehow change the world ignores the concept of judicial oversight. If we decided that every appointment for every job in Washington would be a litmus test for whether we like the president, it would defeat the purpose of the whole process.”
Republicans recently declared a détente with the White House on a handful of Obama’s nominations, including McCarthy, in exchange for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., not employing the so-called nuclear option on executive appointments.
But GOP officials say they won’t be so charitable when it comes to Binz.
“This is such a blatantly political pick by Obama,” said a senior Republican Senate aide. “The more people learn about it, the more our side is going to be pressured to block Binz. Yeah, there’s going to be a major fight.”