Ron Binz, President Obama's pick to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, was grilled Tuesday at a Senate confirmation hearing over his coordination with lobbyists, a public relations firm, a White House official and FERC staff, all seeking to promote his Image ahead of nomination hearings.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, expressed serious doubts over the nominee's independence.
"I am also disturbed about coordination between FERC professional staff, White House staff, a public relations firm that by its own admission has been retained for the benefit of your nomination by an interest group, and lobbyists, at least one of whom I understood you to say you thought 'might be' being paid by the same interest group, to advance your nomination," Murkowski said.
"We may not have seen an effort like this before, and with good reason. Again, FERC is an independent agency. This kind of paid effort, for and with the cooperation of the nominee, must not become 'the new normal,'" Murkowski said.
Emails released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic show Binz worked with lobbyists, White House Confirmation Adviser Jeff Stephens, FERC staff and staff members of the public relations firm VennSquared, retained by the Green Tech Action Fund, to boost his Image prior to the confirmation hearing.
Binz received editorial assistance on his official bio, help setting up meetings with senators, and advice on dealing with the media and individual members of the Senate committee.
He also urged other supporters, including BP Energy Senior Vice President Mark Stultz, to put in a good word for him with potential opponents like Murkowski.
Binz, the controversial former chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, told Murkowski on Tuesday that he had paid no one, but had accepted the help because he predicted fights with "conservative organizations" who opposed him during his tenure in Colorado.
"I'm trying to be open as a book on these things," he said, admitting such coordination would be an "unfortunate" new normal for presidential nominees.
Murkowski argued Binz's cooperation with his "shadow team" conflicted with FERC's independence.
Binz was also questioned repeatedly about comments he made in March that natural gas will be a "dead end" fuel by 2035. He told the committee he meant his statement in the context of carbon reduction, stressing that he "embraces" natural gas as part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy.
"Without carbon capture and storage, I think that's a dead end, a relative dead end -- it won't dead end until 2035 or so. But that's when we need to do better on carbon than even natural gas will allow us to do under current assumptions," he said earlier this year at an Edison Foundation panel on green energy technology, according to the Wall Street Journal.