In our relentlessly expanding regulatory state, where administrative agencies regularly succumb to pressure from hyperpartisan activists, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has historically remained a rare exception above the fray. Unlike such flashpoint agencies as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, the FERC rarely receives popular focus. More recently, however, climate extremists have targeted the FERC and sought to poison the traditionally uncontroversial but vital federal commission.
By way of background, the FERC is the federal agency empowered to regulate interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil, as well as hydropower projects and natural gas terminals. For that reason, climate activists have begun attempting to leverage the FERC’s authority to advance their radical green energy agenda and kill fossil fuel transmission projects.
Unfortunately, that politicization of the FERC has been facilitated by the fact that activists have a friend on the inside — namely, Commissioner Allison Clements, who served as director of the Sustainable FERC Project, a coalition of radical organizations hoping to end fossil fuel use altogether.
Now those activists increasingly engage in crude, disruptive and headline-grabbing tactics to target and disrupt the FERC.
To wit, the climate activist group Beyond Extreme Energy disrupted the FERC’s first meeting of 2023 as agitators chanted “Stop Manchin’s FERC!” in the hallway. According to Politico, the group claims that Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — a centrist Democrat and fossil fuel ally — “effectively controls FERC,” and blames him for scuttling the renomination of past FERC Chair Richard Glick, who attempted to transform the agency into a more activist government agency during his tenure.
Today, Mr. Glick is no longer a commissioner, and the FERC is instead headed by acting Chair Willie Phillips, a moderate Democrat who often engages in bipartisan cooperation.
Mr. Phillips is off to a productive start. In his brief tenure, the FERC has already approved the expansion of the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co.’s Regional Energy Access project. The Board of Public Utilities in New Jersey initially opposed that project, alleging that it was unnecessary, but the FERC concluded that the project was needed on peak winter days and to diversify the supply of gas to the Northeast.
The weight of evidence supported the FERC’s position. Gas utilities had already contracted for the full capacity of the project, indicating strong demand. Consequently, Mr. Phillips determined that the new project would “bring a greater sense of security and reliability to the Northeast” and would “contribute to the overall economic growth in the region.”
Although Ms. Clements ultimately voted to approve the project after citing the FERC’s long-standing policy for approving natural gas infrastructure, she ominously added that she considers the commission’s policy flawed. Specifically, she proposed that state greenhouse gas reduction goals should be taken into account when making the FERC approval decisions. “We must recognize that our energy future must be clean, secure, and reliable,” she said. “We must also recognize that states have the right to promote their own interests in clean energy production, and that the FERC must take their interests into consideration.”
Given those remarks and her past leadership of the Sustainable FERC Project, Ms. Clements clearly prefers a policy giving states effective veto power over the FERC’s approvals. The problem, of course, is that many states — California, New Jersey and New York, for example — maintain extremist and unrealistic ”green energy” goals. Ms. Clements’ proposal could therefore lead to big, anti-fossil fuel states wielding the power to kill natural gas projects that the rest of the nation desperately needs.
With activists now protesting in the FERC’s hallways and fossil fuel opponents like Ms. Clements sitting as commissioners, America’s energy infrastructure has become even more of a political football. If President Biden means what he says about meeting Americans’ energy needs, strengthening our infrastructure and safeguarding our energy independence, he would thus be wise to choose a permanent chair — whether Mr. Phillips or someone else — who understands America’s energy needs and better respects consumers.
• Timothy Lee is senior vice president of legal and public affairs for the Center for Individual Freedom.