As Ronald J. Binz heads to Washington to become one of the country’s most powerful energy regulators, critics say the former Colorado official leaves in his wake a record of dramatic overreach, an outright hostility to coal and an “anti-business” bent.
Mr. Binz, who formerly led Colorado’s Public Utilities Commission, was tapped last month by President Obama to chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an agency with broad authority over natural gas distribution, pipelines, electricity transmission and other vital energy matters. His record in Colorado indicates that he’s in lockstep with the White House’s agenda — spelled out in details by Mr. Obama’s speech on climate change policy last month — to sharply scale back or even eliminate coal-fired power plants and invest large amounts of taxpayer money in renewable energy research and projects.
“If Ron Binz does for the nation what he did for us in Colorado, consumers can expect much higher utility rates nationwide. Ron would cripple the utility industry with more unnecessary regulations,” said John Kinkaid, a commissioner in Colorado’s Moffat County. “We need to be going in the opposite direction the administration is taking us, and Ron Binz is just one more person who would have a negative impact on our national economy.”
Mr. Kinkaid added that he believes Mr. Binz is a “perfect fit” in an administration that’s been accused by Republicans, the energy industry and others of waging an all-out “war on coal.”
Republicans in Washington also have raised concerns, with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski pledging to “carefully consider the nominee’s qualifications and fitness to serve.”
Mr. Binz, who returned to his consulting firm in Denver after leaving the utilities commission in 2011, declined an interview request.
But while critics see him as a key player in the Obama administration’s environmental agenda for the next four years, Mr. Binz’s supporters paint a very different picture.
Mr. Binz is viewed favorably by proponents of renewable energy and he also has received words of support from the heads of several major utility companies, some Colorado lawmakers and others who consider him a strong, bold choice for the job.
“Ron is a proven leader who recognizes the need for diversity in the U.S. electricity supply,” said Jim Robo, president and CEO of NextEra Energy Inc., a renewable-energy company. “His record of achievement would serve the country well in leading” the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
But Mr. Binz’s detractors object to more than his support for renewable energy and seeming distaste for coal, both of which are common sentiments in the Obama administration.
They also say that Mr. Binz has engaged in questionable ethical conduct by helping to draft “clean-energy” legislation that, in his role as Colorado’s public utilities regulator, he then helped implement.
He reportedly had a hand in crafting the state’s 2010 Clean Air Clean Jobs bill, which offered incentives for companies to close coal-fired power plants or revamp them to use cleaner alternatives such as natural gas.
The head of Xcel Energy Inc., a major electric and natural gas company believed to also have had a hand in drafting the Colorado legislation, strongly backs the appointment.
Mr. Binz’s nomination “is a strong choice in this time of change for the utility industry,” company Chairman Ben Fowke said in a statement last week. “His understanding of the regulatory process makes him uniquely qualified to address the diverse set of issues facing utilities in the U.S., from grid modernization to carbon regulation.”