White House Leaves Industry Guessing on FERC Chairman
The White House remained mum throughout last week on its final
choice for FERC chairman, but sources indicate that President Bush
continues to champion Texas regulator Pat Wood III over current
FERC Chairman Curt Hebert Jr. for the job despite mounting pressure
from Capitol Hill to keep Hebert.
"...[T]here's been discussion that Pat Wood, a friend and ally
of Bush, could very well be the next chairman," forcing Hebert to
step aside after only about six weeks on the job, said a Capitol
Hill aide. "The president says he hasn't made a final decision
yet," he added, but sources believe Bush is leaning towards Wood.
"I'm not aware of the White House having made their final choice
either," said Samantha Jordan, press aide for Rep. Joe Barton
(R-TX). "I think they're still looking, but there was some
discussion that it was possible that [Hebert] could be replaced."
The White House announced a series of nominations last week for
the departments of Energy, Interior and Transportation, but an
announcement about Wood was not to be found. One source speculated
that the White House may be delaying it until it can find another
top slot for Hebert within the administration.
There were reports Friday that Wood had accepted the position at
FERC and that an FBI background check was under way already, but
this could not be immediately confirmed.
Meanwhile, Hebert continues to have the backing of the "old line
Republican leadership" in the Senate - namely Majority Leader Trent
Lott (R-MS), Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Larry Craig
(R-ID) - for the FERC chairmanship, said an industry source in
Washington D.C. "They all have spoken out forcefully in favor of
the job he's done so far," she noted. Even some Republican
heavyweights in the House - such as Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-LA)
and Barton - have publicly advocated Hebert for the job.
"Sen. Craig.....firmly stands behind the chairman and says he'll
continue to support him," said Craig spokeswoman Sarah Berk. Barton
"certainly supports" Wood for a FERC commissioner, but he and
Tauzin favor Hebert for Commission chairman, according to Jordan.
"They feel he has done a good job." But despite these endorsements
from Capitol Hill, "it's a presidential choice" in the end, a gas
industry representative noted.
Given this strong leaning for Hebert on Capitol Hill, however,
the White House could face an uphill battle in getting a Wood
nomination through the Senate.
In the meantime, most energy companies are playing it safe by
not indicating their support for either candidate. "We're not
jumping to any conclusions one way or the other," remarked the
industry source. Nevertheless, she questioned whether it was a
"good time to change direction" at the Commission. "We're in the
midst of an energy crisis" in California and elsewhere.
"We can't figure out who's opposing him [Hebert]," she said,
speculating that it might be the California delegation in Congress,
which has assailed Hebert for refusing to impose regional price
caps on bulk power transactions. "Maybe they think there would be
an advantage" if Wood were appointed to head up FERC, she noted.
Some of the opposition to Hebert is coming from inside the
energy industry itself. At least two industry trade groups have
refused to sign a resolution supporting Hebert for FERC chairman.
The resolution was circulated at a recent meeting of gas
representatives in Washington, said another source.
The same gas source openly favors Wood over Hebert, saying that
Wood has a good grasp on gas and electricity issues and is well
regarded by Bush.
On Capitol Hill, the issue of who will be the next Commission
chairman has become something of a hot potato. What normally was
considered a routine appointment suddenly has become too hot to
talk about. "We're declining all comments on the issue of FERC
appointments," said an aide to Murkowski. When asked why, he noted,
"it's a Bush administration issue." Wood also is refusing to make
The White House notified Hebert, the only Republican currently
on the Commission, on Jan. 22 that he was to take over from
Democratic Chairman James Hoecker. But it was never clear at the
time whether Hebert's appointment was as "acting" or permanent
chairman. Hebert and FERC press spokesmen strongly indicated at the
time that it was permanent, but the White House never made any
formal announcement to that effect.
One industry source last week accused Hebert of misleading the
regulated energy industries about the nature of his appointment.
"He kind of told us, but didn't tell us. He has not been candid and
forthright with the industry.....about the conditional aspect of