Biden Shifts Balance of FERC to Democrats With a Nomination

President Joe Biden plans to nominate a Washington utility regulator to fill the remaining open seat at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, potentially tipping the panel’s balance of power in favor of Democrats.

Willie Phillips Jr., the chair of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia, would replace former FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, who stepped down at the end of last month. Phillips’s appointment, if confirmed by the Senate, would give the top U.S. energy regulatory agency commission a majority of members appointed by Democrats.

The independent five-member agency, which plays a role overseeing liquefied natural gas export facilities, gas pipelines and wholesale power markets, is poised to play a pivotal part of fulfilling Biden’s clean-energy ambitions. 

The commission could help Biden deliver on those promises by propelling a massive build-out of transmission lines to connect remote solar and wind farms to towns and cities. The agency could also make it more difficult to build natural gas pipelines.

Commissioners serve five-year terms at the bipartisan agency. The White House designates the chair.

“As the Biden administration advances its plans to tackle the climate crisis and create a clean electricity grid by 2035, FERC will maintain an important role regulating the transmission of renewable energy across the country,” the White House said in a statement obtained by Bloomberg announcing the intent to nominate Phillips.

Phillips is a relatively uncontroversial choice, which could boost his chances of swift Senate confirmation, ClearView Energy Partners said in a research note. He’s is more of a technician and a green pragmatist than a politician or progressive, according to the note.

Progressive Opposition

Some progressive environmental activists, including more than 400 green groups that had pushed other candidates for the job, opposed the nomination. 

“This is a disappointing selection,” Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones said in a statement. “Willie Phillips has spent his career working on the side of the oil and gas industry and electric utility giants.”

West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who leads the panel that would approve the nomination, said in a statement that he looked forward to having Phillips appear before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and “will carefully examine his record and qualifications to serve in this important role.” 

The agency dictates how electricity is bought and sold in wholesale markets, which are where most utilities get their power. And the commission’s decisions governing gas pipelines can give developers a green light to invoke eminent domain and install projects on private land.

Phillips, a lawyer with nearly 20 years of legal experience as a utility regulator, led the District Public Service Commission’s efforts to modernize the energy grid and implement the city’s clean energy and climate goals, according to the White House. Before that, he was an assistant general counsel for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a regulatory body. 

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