Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Bernard McNamee is still working with agency ethics officials to determine if he will participate in a pending proceeding on grid resilience, he told reporters Wednesday.
Congressional Democrats and environmental groups have pressured McNamee since last year to recuse himself from the resilience docket. The regulator said he is “going to work with ethics counsel to make a determination,” but declined to comment on those discussions.
McNamee also said he is not aware of any federal plans to lend financial support to retiring coal and nuclear plants and pledged not to prejudge pending applications for liquified natural gas export facilities after FERC reached a compromise on the matter last month.
McNamee’s Wednesday evening comments came after a panel discussion on energy infrastructure at the CERAWeek conference in Houston.
The event revealed little about the commissioner’s plans, but marks the first time he has answered questions from the press since being confirmed to FERC in December.
That 50-49 vote was controversial due to McNamee’s role in crafting a coal and nuclear bailout proposal while working at the Department of Energy. FERC unanimously rejected the DOE’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) early last year, opening a broader proceeding on grid resilience.
During the confirmation process, Utility Dive also released a video of McNamee criticizing renewable energy and casting doubt on climate science, which stoked opposition among Democrats.
In December, Senate Democrats sent a letter to McNamee saying that the video and his work on the NOPR mean he should recuse himself from a wide range of power generation issues at FERC. Environmental groups, 10 Democratic attorneys general and energy lawyers from Harvard made similar arguments.
McNamee responded to the senators in January, sending a letter from FERC ethics officials saying he would recuse himself from any lingering decisions on the DOE NOPR.
McNamee would not, however, recuse himself from the broader resilience docket unless the records in the two proceedings “replicate or closely resemble” one another, the letter read.
How to define that standard is unclear, energy lawyers told Utility Dive at the time, particularly because the the resilience docket already contains comments from coal and nuclear owners that resemble their arguments on the NOPR.
On Wednesday, McNamee declined to offer more detail.
“I can’t go into what the process is but I’m going to work with ethics counsel and make a determination based on the advice I’m getting from them,” he said.
After FERC rejected the NOPR, the Department of Energy began discussions on alternative strategies to save coal and nuclear plants from retirement, such as using the agency’s emergency powers to keep them online.
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said Wednesday those conversations are not dead, but McNamee said he is not privy to them.
“I’m not aware of any of those plans,” he said. “At FERC our job is to ensure on the electric generation side to ensure that the markets work.
“I’m committed to markets,” he added. “I think they’re the best way to establish price and allocate resources and our job is to look at the applications, the tariffs that come before us and make decisions how that works.”
During Perry’s keynote address at CERAWeek on Wednesday, he called out McNamee for his role in FERC’s approval of the Calcasieu Pass LNG export facility, the first in over two years.
“I’m looking at one of the solutions right here in the audience — Bernie Mac,” Perry said, using a nickname often attributed to the commissioner in FERC circles.
After that approval, Democrat Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur, the swing vote on LNG, told Utility Dive she was concerned that statements issued by DOE and FERC about the decision appeared to prejudge a dozen other LNG applications in the queue.
Those statements hailed the climate change compromise that led to the approval as a “breakthrough” — one that may provide a “framework” for future decisions.
McNamee said he is confident no one is prejudging applications, but declined to offer further detail on how the commission may address greenhouse gas impacts of energy infrastructure in the future.
“We have an obligation to look at environmental issues, a whole range of them, and greenhouse gas emissions are one of them,” he said, “and as you saw in the order we addressed all the issues.”