President Trump's nomination of Department of Energy (DOE) official Bernard McNamee to fill the vacant fifth seat at FERC took another step forward Tuesday morning when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted to to favorably report it to the full Senate.
The motion was approved by a 13-10 vote, with all 12 Republicans on the committee, joined by a single Democrat -- Joe Manchin of West Virginia -- voting in favor.
McNamee, a Republican who is currently executive director of DOE's Office of Policy, was nominated by Trump last month to fill a spot at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission previously held by Robert Powelson, for the remainder of a five-year term due to expire June 30, 2020. McNamee previously served as deputy general counsel for energy policy at DOE and practiced energy law with McGuireWoods LLP. He also has worked at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).
During a previous hearing, Democrats on the committee asked McNamee if he would recuse himself should issues reemerge related to DOE's failed notice of proposed rulemaking on grid resiliency and reliability issues. McNamee pledged to serve as an "independent arbiter" of those issues that come before FERC.
Democrats said they were also concerned by a speech at a TPPF meeting earlier this year, in which, they said, McNamee displayed a clear bias against renewable energy and in favor of fossil fuels. An hour-long video of the remarks resurfaced this month.
"After the video has surfaced Mr. McNamee's thoughts on fossil fuels, I find it hard to believe that he's going to be an impartial reviewer of these issues," said the committee's ranking member, Maria Cantwell (D-WA). "Mr. McNamee was not defending the administration's policies, he was speaking as a private citizen. His words revealed a very strong bias in favor of fossil fuel and against renewable energy."
Cantwell compared McNamee's nomination to that of Ron Binz, who in 2013 asked President Obama to withdraw his name from consideration for FERC chairman after Republicans on the committee, joined by Manchin, voiced their opposition, saying Binz had displayed a bias toward renewables.
"They said his views were 'troubling and out of the mainstream.' That is far more clearly the case here, in my opinion. Mr. McNamee's speech shows him to be neither fair nor judicious. His views as expressed are out of the mainstream."
Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said some of McNamee's comments on the video "were unfortunate," but did not rise to a level of disqualification.
"Some have suggested that this video is sufficient to warrant a vote against Mr. McNamee. Many of those that are perhaps urging this action already made up their minds a while ago, but I'm looking at in the context with which I have seen it, as one speech from an event 10 months ago, just his second day on a new job out there in Texas," Murkowski said. "And based on conversations that I've had with Mr. McNamee, I think that he understands that FERC must be an independent agency, it must continue to function as such, and I'm going to take his commitment to maintain FERC's autonomy and to take an independent role as a commissioner at face value. But I do expect and I will expect that he'll be fuel neutral and not a champion for one resource over another."
The committee vote was applauded by the Natural Gas Supply Association (NGSA).
"We are pleased that FERC is one step closer to having a full complement," said NGSA CEO Dena Wiggins. "As an independent regulatory agency, it’s important for FERC’s work to continue and that works best with a commissioner in every seat. We are especially appreciative of Mr. McNamee’s strong support for competitive markets and believe that he will work with his colleagues to ensure timely and thorough reviews of proposed pipeline projects."
There are currently four commissioners at FERC, two of them Republicans -- Chairman Neil Chatterjee and Kevin McIntyre -- and two Democrats -- Cheryl LaFleur and Richard Glick.
Suffering from a "serious health setback," McIntyre last month stepped down as chairman and Trump designated Chatterjee to once again lead the Commission. Chatterjee previously served as acting chairman for four months prior to McIntyre’s Dec. 2017 swearing in at FERC.
By a voice vote, the committee also sent to the full Senate the nomination of Rita Baranwal to be assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the DOE.
A total of 10 nominations passed on by the committee to the Senate for confirmation are pending, according to Murkowski.
"It is my hope that these nominees be confirmed before the end of the year so that the agencies have their leadership teams in place, so that the nominees don't have to keep their lives on hold, and so that we don't have to basically start over again next year," she said.