Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden alleged Monday that two of President Trump's energy nominees would not be impartial and would take their marching orders from the White House.
Wyden said that, on the basis of written responses to his questions, the nominees to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would likely be swayed by White House pressure to approve energy projects, jeopardizing the independence of the five-member commission.
FERC oversees the wholesale electric grid and approves large, multi-billion dollar energy projects like interstate pipelines and export terminals. But it does not take orders from the executive branch like a Cabinet-level agency and is supposed to function autonomously as directed under the law.
"Both FERC nominees failed to commit to avoiding political interference from the White House or maximizing public engagement in proposed energy projects," Wyden said in a statement.
The nominees are Neil Chatterjee, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's top energy adviser, and Robert Powelson, a Republican utility regulator from the pro-fracking state of Pennsylvania. Both will be voted out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.
"Given FERC's important role in energy infrastructure in Oregon and communities across the country, I am also concerned that nominating commissioners from only one political party is a signal from the White House that it has no intention of ensuring FERC continues as the bipartisan and independent agency it has long been," Wyden said.
The commission is made up of equal members from both political parties, and the FERC chairman is from the same party as the president. Currently, FERC lacks a quorum to approve any energy projects, and must have at least three members to be able to operate. It was shutdown in February as only two Democrats remained. At the end of June it will be down to just one member.
Over the past four months, the energy industry has prodded Trump to appoint new members of the commission. Trump announced the nominations last month, and energy committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has advised Democrats not to block the nominations in order to restore the quorum to the important commission.
Wyden's statement is likely indicative of how other Democrats will likely vote, including Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the energy committee, who will be voting tomorrow. Wyden was part of a group of 15 Democrats that sent a letter to Trump in March asking him to restore the bipartisan agency.
"I will continue to insist FERC considers local voices in its decisions and that the administration moves beyond politics to keep FERC bipartisan and independent," Wyden said on Monday.