Regulatory observers believe the odds are high that Colette D. Honorable, who chairs the Arkansas Public Service Commission, is the front runner to take over as head of FERC.

If she is nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate, Honorable would be the first woman and first African American to chair the Commission. "She's not the lightning rod that [Ron] Binz was. I haven't heard any downside to confirming her," said a regulatory official with an oil and natural gas association.

Amid controversy over his pro-renewable energy and anti-fossil fuel sentiments, former Colorado regulator Binz earlier this month asked Obama to withdraw his name from further consideration as a nominee for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) chairman (see NGIOct. 7). The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over FERC nominations, had vowed to block his nomination, preventing the full Senate from voting on it.

Unlike Binz, "she is very confirmable," which is something the Obama administration wants during this period of "acrimony," said a spokeswoman for a pipeline group.

Another possible candidate as chair would be Democratic FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur. She has been on the Commission since 2010, and her term is scheduled to end in June 2014. "I have no reason to believe there would be anything preventing" Obama from appointing LaFleur, said the regulatory official with an oil and gas group.

Separately, Don Santa, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said LaFleur is "obviously is quite qualified. She's got experience from having been on the Commission, [and] she has experience in the industry."

But it's unlikely that John Norris, another Democrat on the Commission, would be considered for chairman. Obama initially picked Norris to be the new chairman. But Norris "shot himself in the foot" last month when he accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) of blocking his appointment because he said Norris was too "pro-coal." Reid denied the allegation.

"I don't think Obama wants to tick off Reid" by nominating Norris when he is trying to get Congress to reopen the federal government and lift the debt ceiling by Oct. 17.

Norris, a former Iowa regulator, was nominated to FERC by Obama in 2010 and reconfirmed by the Senate in 2012 for a full term, expiring in June 2014.

Current FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff is due to depart the agency at the end of the year. Industry observers don't expect Obama to announce his choice for a successor to Wellinghoff until the government shutdown and debt ceiling issues are resolved.