While there have been moments of partisan division since she first came to the ostensibly independent FERC in 2010, real party-line rifts weren't exposed until last year, Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur said Wednesday.
"I think the polarization of Washington, DC, and societal rifts on big issues -- especially climate change -- have affected 888 First Street," the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's headquarters, LaFleur said at an Energy Bar Association event in the nation's capital. "Certainly, issues that have clear climate implications have been the hardest to agree on."
LaFleur said FERC had previously only veered into political territory during the scuffle to replace Jon Wellinghoff as chairman in 2013 -- "things seemed to get more political, or at least what passed for political at the time," she said. And over the following two years, there were issues whenever the Commission was asked to weigh in on Environmental Protection Agency issues, including Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the Clean Power Plan.
"But even on those issues we were often able to find a way to pull together," LaFleur said. "For example, Colette [Honorable] worked hard to bring the full five-member Commission together to sign a letter to the EPA about a reliability safety valve for the Clean Power Plan."
"While most of our orders are still unanimous, we've seen more dissents and separate statements, and more partisan splits...During this period of increased split decisions, even some less prominent orders without obvious climate aspects have been stalled at times because individual commissioners are too dug in on an issue to agree on language.
“This has happened far more frequently than in the past. I think disagreements on big things, and the general lack of continuity, have made it harder to meet in the middle."
The nominally five-member FERC currently has four members -- Chairman Neil Chatterjee and Bernard McNamee, who are Republicans, and LaFleur and Richard Glick, who are Democrats. However, LaFleur’s seat is due to be vacated in a matter of weeks as she plans to step down at the end of her term on June 30, or shortly thereafter.
McNamee's term expires in 2020; Chatterjee's in 2021; and Glick's in 2022. Commissioner and former Chairman Kevin J. McIntyre, who had been battling cancer since 2017, died Jan. 2.
Some natural gas and oil organizations are anxious for the White House to nominate new commissioners.
"The lack of a full Commission can delay the approval of pending projects, such as natural gas infrastructure projects, thereby hindering the advancement of critical infrastructure," members of the Natural Gas Council wrote in a letter sent to President Trump last month.
The White House has given no indication whom the president might nominate to replace McIntyre or LaFleur. By law, no more than three seats at FERC may be held by one political party, so speculation is that Trump would nominate a Republican first and then a Democrat when LaFleur leaves.
Among the names floated as possible nominees have been Barry Smitherman, former Railroad Commission of Texas chairman and Texas Public Utilities Commission member; Patrick McCormick, former chief counsel for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; and Ellen Nowak, former chairwoman of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. All of them were reportedly under consideration for FERC in 2017. Also said to be under consideration is David Hill, former general counsel for NRG Energy.