The White House remained mum throughout last week on its finalchoice for FERC chairman, but sources indicate that President Bushcontinues to champion Texas regulator Pat Wood III over currentFERC Chairman Curt Hebert Jr. for the job despite mounting pressurefrom Capitol Hill to keep Hebert.

“…[T]here’s been discussion that Pat Wood, a friend and allyof Bush, could very well be the next chairman,” forcing Hebert tostep aside after only about six weeks on the job, said a CapitolHill aide. “The president says he hasn’t made a final decisionyet,” he added, but sources believe Bush is leaning towards Wood.

“I’m not aware of the White House having made their final choiceeither,” said Samantha Jordan, press aide for Rep. Joe Barton(R-TX). “I think they’re still looking, but there was somediscussion that it was possible that [Hebert] could be replaced.”

The White House announced a series of nominations last week forthe departments of Energy, Interior and Transportation, but anannouncement about Wood was not to be found. One source speculatedthat the White House may be delaying it until it can find anothertop slot for Hebert within the administration.

There were reports Friday that Wood had accepted the position atFERC and that an FBI background check was under way already, butthis could not be immediately confirmed.

Meanwhile, Hebert continues to have the backing of the “old lineRepublican leadership” in the Senate – namely Majority Leader TrentLott (R-MS), Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Larry Craig(R-ID) – for the FERC chairmanship, said an industry source inWashington D.C. “They all have spoken out forcefully in favor ofthe job he’s done so far,” she noted. Even some Republicanheavyweights 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’llcontinue to support him,” said Craig spokeswoman Sarah Berk. Barton”certainly supports” Wood for a FERC commissioner, but he andTauzin favor Hebert for Commission chairman, according to Jordan.”They feel he has done a good job.” But despite these endorsementsfrom Capitol Hill, “it’s a presidential choice” in the end, a gasindustry representative noted.

Given this strong leaning for Hebert on Capitol Hill, however,the White House could face an uphill battle in getting a Woodnomination through the Senate.

In the meantime, most energy companies are playing it safe bynot indicating their support for either candidate. “We’re notjumping to any conclusions one way or the other,” remarked theindustry source. Nevertheless, she questioned whether it was a”good time to change direction” at the Commission. “We’re in themidst 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 pricecaps on bulk power transactions. “Maybe they think there would bean advantage” if Wood were appointed to head up FERC, she noted.

Some of the opposition to Hebert is coming from inside theenergy industry itself. At least two industry trade groups haverefused to sign a resolution supporting Hebert for FERC chairman.The resolution was circulated at a recent meeting of gasrepresentatives in Washington, said another source.

The same gas source openly favors Wood over Hebert, saying thatWood has a good grasp on gas and electricity issues and is wellregarded by Bush.

On Capitol Hill, the issue of who will be the next Commissionchairman has become something of a hot potato. What normally wasconsidered a routine appointment suddenly has become too hot totalk about. “We’re declining all comments on the issue of FERCappointments,” said an aide to Murkowski. When asked why, he noted,”it’s a Bush administration issue.” Wood also is refusing to makeany comment.

The White House notified Hebert, the only Republican currentlyon the Commission, on Jan. 22 that he was to take over fromDemocratic Chairman James Hoecker. But it was never clear at thetime whether Hebert’s appointment was as “acting” or permanentchairman. Hebert and FERC press spokesmen strongly indicated at thetime that it was permanent, but the White House never made anyformal announcement to that effect.

One industry source last week accused Hebert of misleading theregulated energy industries about the nature of his appointment.”He kind of told us, but didn’t tell us. He has not been candid andforthright with the industry…..about the conditional aspect ofhis position.”

Susan Parker

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