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Wellinghoff Tapped as Acting FERC Chairman; Cabinet Sworn In

President Obama Friday tapped Commissioner Jon Wellinghoff, a favorite of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), as acting chairman of the five-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Earlier in the president's first week in office Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu were sworn in at the White House as secretaries of the departments of Interior and Energy, respectively.

"I thank President Obama for the opportunity to lead FERC at a time when our nation faces the challenge of providing consumers with access to clean, renewable energy and ensuring that our nation can deliver that energy in the most efficient, smart and technologically sophisticated manner possible," Wellinghoff said.

By selecting Wellinghoff as interim chairman, the Obama White House "keeps their options open" to name a full-time chairman at a later time, a gas pipeline industry source said. At this point the Commission has its full five-member complement and retains its 3-2 Republican majority.

The choice of Wellinghoff "indicates that they may want to consider [an outside] nominee at some point" for FERC chairman, he told NGI. Two possibilities that have been mentioned are John Norris, chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board; and Charles E. Box, chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission (see NGI, Dec. 1, 2008, Dec. 8, 2008). But for Obama to name an outsider as chairman, a sitting commissioner would first have to resign from FERC.

Joseph Kelliher, who relinquished the reins as FERC chairman Friday after three and a half years, did not resign as commissioner, although he said earlier this month that he is exploring other job opportunities (see NGI, Jan. 12). His term does not end until 2012. Unless someone resigns, the first opportunity Obama would have to name another Democrat and gain a majority at FERC would be when Commissioner Philip Moeller's term expires in June 2010.

There is "always the possibility" that Obama could name Wellinghoff to the chairman's post full time, the pipeline industry source said. Wellinghoff, who is strong in renewable fuels and energy efficiency, "comes to the Commission with an unusual background," he said, adding that FERC commissioners traditionally have been state regulators.

"We've worked with him [Wellinghoff] fairly well" on pipeline issues, particularly what pipelines can do to capture waste heat from their operations, he said.

The current makeup of FERC is two Democrats -- Wellinghoff and Commissioner Suedeen Kelly -- and three Republicans -- Commissioners Moeller, Marc Spitzer and Kelliher. The one trump the chairmanship gives to the Democrats is the power to control the agenda.

Wellinghoff has been a FERC commissioner since 2006. His current term does not expire until June 2013. Prior to joining FERC, Wellinghoff was an energy attorney specializing in renewable energy, energy efficiency and distributed generation. He believes the Commission's role under an Obama administration is supporting the new president's goal of a "green energy economy."

Salazar and Chu were among seven Cabinet nominees who were approved by voice vote by the Senate last Tuesday, just hours after Obama took the oath as the 44th president. They were sworn in the next day by Vice President Joe Biden as part of what appears to be one of the fastest transitions in modern times. Chu had been director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (see NGI, Jan. 19a). Salazar had been Colorado's attorney general and head of the state's Department of Natural Resources before being elected senator in 2004 (see NGI, Jan. 19b).

Walter Cruickshank, deputy director of Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS), has been tapped as acting MMS director until Salazar and the White House make a selection. The MMS manages oil and gas development on the Outer Continental Shelf and collects more than $8 billion annually in revenues from production on offshore leases.

Henri R. Bisson, deputy director of Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has been named acting director of BLM in the interim. The agency reviews and approves permits and licenses for producers to explore and develop oil and gas resources on both onshore federal and Indian lands, as well as collects billions of dollars each year in royalties, rentals and bonus payments.

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