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Panel Forwards FERC Nomination; Quick Senate Vote Expected

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last Thursday reported out to the full Senate the nomination of former Iowa utility regulator John Norris to FERC.

The favorable vote for Norris, currently chief of staff for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, came two months after his confirmation hearing before the committee (see NGI, Aug. 10). Because Senate attention has been diverted by health care legislation, the energy committee has been hard pressed to get a quorum at a business meeting to vote out the nomination of Norris and others.

A friend of President Obama, Norris is expected to win Senate confirmation. A committee spokesman said a Senate vote on the Norris nomination could come as early as this week. Norris would be one of three Democrats -- the others being Chairman Jon Wellinghoff and Commissioner Suedeen Kelly -- on the five-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Kelly has said she plans to leave FERC when her replacement is confirmed by the Senate, but the White House has not tapped anyone to fill her spot (see NGI, Sept. 28).

In June Obama announced his intent to nominate Norris for a seat on the Commission (see NGI, June 15). Norris, former chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB), was considered a top contender for the FERC chairman slot after the presidential election last November. But he went to the Agriculture Department, and Wellinghoff, a favorite of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), was selected as FERC chairman in March.

Norris was a board member and chairman of the IUB from March 2005 until earlier this year. Prior to coming to Washington, DC, Norris was Sen. John Kerry's (D-MA) Iowa director during Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign and had been chief of staff for Vilsack when he was governor of Iowa. He also ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2002.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate energy panel in August, Norris skirted questions about whether natural gas shippers -- like their electric shipper counterparts -- should be eligible for retroactive refunds when they have been overcharged by their transportation providers.

For electricity customers, the refund authority under the Federal Power Act "[has] been effective and worked well. There's been certainly a deterrent effect" as a result, but "I'm not going to advocate one way or another to [put] the change into law" for natural gas pipeline customers, Norris said.

Norris also said that as a member of the Commission he would defer to the states on the siting of new power transmission facilities.

He said he would be "respectful of the rights of states on siting of infrastructure and give great deference to the states on this. There is a need to upgrade our transmission grid...I think, and depending [on] the power Congress decides to give to FERC, we have to use it [backstop authority] very sparingly and judiciously." If Congress grants FERC backstop authority, the federal agency could consider an application for a transmission line in cases where a state has failed to act on an application within a year of its filing.

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