President Obama’s nominee to a top energy post is hanging on by a thread after a poor performance last week at a confirmation hearing where he failed to win over key supporters and even appeared to have misled a Senate committee about his record of support for a coal-fired energy plant.
The troubles for Ron Binz, the president’s nominee to be chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, worsened as the Obama administration released rules last week for new energy plants that analysts said makes coal an impossible fuel to use.
This combination of developments marks an escalation in the battle over climate change three months after Mr. Obama promised a renewed fight to try to curtail the use of greenhouse gas emissions, including fuels.
Trying to win the support of several key senators who support using fossil fuels, Mr. Binz last week told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that he approved the largest coal-fired plant in Colorado’s history during his term as chairman of that state’s Public Utilities Commission.
But that is not the case, according to a former commissioner and to the timeline of the Comanche 3 plant, Xcel Energy’s coal-fired plant in Pueblo, Colo.
The commission approved the project in late December 2004 and released the decision early the next month. Mr. Binz didn’t join the board until two years later, said Polly Page, who was a commissioner from 2000 to 2008.
“In that decision, it gave them all the legal necessities for building this coal plant and getting the rate recovery that would make them whole. That was done in 2005, and Mr. Binz joined the commission in 2007,” she said.
Mr. Binz didn’t respond to a request for comment about the contradiction.
He earlier told The Washington Times that he was refusing all interviews until his confirmation, but he did tell the website CompleteColorado last week that as chairman, he approved a rate plan that allowed the utility to begin operating.
Ms. Page, though, said those plans were in the initial approval phase and all Mr. Binz did was “rubber stamp” what was in place.
Mr. Binz was trying to convince the energy committee that he is not opposed to fossil fuels, but he is suffering in part because the administration of the man who nominated him — Mr. Obama — is moving to make their use less prevalent.
On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced long-anticipated emissions rules that those in the industry say make new coal plants impossible. The rules are more generous, however, to natural gas.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy defended the standards Friday morning, saying her agency and the administration are acting on behalf of future generations’ right to breathe clean air.
“At the end of the day, that is what the issue of climate change is all about. That’s why EPA cares,” Ms. McCarthy said during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. “The president’s climate action plan calls on federal agencies to take steady, sensible and pragmatic steps to cut the harmful carbon pollution that fuels our changing climate and to prepare for unavoidable impacts based on the climate change that is already happening and is inevitable.”
The rules now will go through the public comment period and must survive congressional scrutiny.
Many Republicans and several Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, criticized the proposals.
Mr. Manchin, as a member of the Senate energy committee, is also critical in the battle over Mr. Binz. He announced after hearings last week that he cannot support the nomination because it didn’t auger well for his state’s reliance on coal.
With all of the panel’s Republicans also expected to oppose Mr. Binz, his fate appears to rest with Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who is up for re-election next year in a state where fossil-fuel production is an important part of the economy. Her office didn’t respond to three requests for comment last week, and those following the nomination said she is under intense pressure.
If Republicans and Mr. Manchin oppose Mr. Binz but Ms. Landrieu supports him, it would leave a tie vote in the committee. It is rare that a nominee who doesn’t get a favorable vote is brought to the full Senate floor.
In this case, however, Mr. Binz has a major backer: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, whose staff has been working the Binz nomination. Indeed, two former Reid staffers, both of them now lobbyists, also are advising Mr. Binz.
The White House also hasn’t given up on him, though its support seemed pro forma last week.
“Mr. Binz is a highly qualified nominee who would do a great job at the FERC. And we continue to work with Congress to ensure that he gets a fair hearing and gets confirmed in a timely fashion,” Josh Earnest, the deputy press secretary, told reporters.
The controversies over Mr. Binz have intensified in recent weeks after The Times reported on emails showing the coordination between him and the lobbyists and strategists he assembled.
Indeed, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the committee, accused Mr. Binz last week of misleading her when he earlier denied he was working with such a team.
Other emails obtained by The Times from researcher Chris Horner and the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic show Mr. Binz asked BP PLC oil company officials to lobby the committee for him.
Mr. Binz apologized to Ms. Murkowski on Tuesday, saying he didn’t mean to mislead her. He also said he had asked one of the strategists not to work with him anymore.
Ms. Page, who overlapped Mr. Binz for a year on the Colorado commission, called him knowledgeable but said he was “very demanding and controlling.”
“I think he’s more of an activist,” she said. “Where I felt our job was to be a judge and listen to all the evidence, it’s not his style.”