Bernard McNamee, the Trump administration's choice to fill a vacancy at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), weathered his nomination hearing despite sharp skepticism from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's minority members.
The committee voted to approve his nomination, and he's expected to be confirmed by the full Senate this month.
McNamee, currently executive director of the Department of Energy's Office of Policy, sought to assure the lawmakers that he would be "a fair, objective and impartial arbiter" of issues before the commission. But several Democrats and an Independent expressed doubts, taking issue with McNamee's role in drafting a recent DOE proposal that would have subsidized coal and nuclear power plants based on what proponents termed their "grid resiliency" attributes.
The plan, opposed by NRECA, was rejected by FERC in February, with regulators agreeing to study the issue further.
McNamee, nominated to the seat vacated in August by Commissioner Robert Powelson, pointed to his wide-ranging experience on electric and gas issues on Capitol Hill, in the private sector and on the state and federal levels. He noted that he has worked on renewable portfolio standards, integrated resource planning, energy efficiency programs, and rate cases.
"I have not just talked about fuel diversity and 'all of the above' energy policies," McNamee said. "I have worked to help make them a reality."
He said markets are the best way to allocate resources and set prices and pledged, if confirmed, to continue "FERC's independence in its decision-making."
Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she emphasized this point during a meeting with the nominee "the importance of maintaining FERC's autonomy and commitment to taking an independent role."
"The commission's orders are never contingent on the Department of Energy's policy decisions," she said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., likened seating the nominee on the regulatory commission to "putting the fox inside the chicken coop." Wyden, joined by Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and Angus King, I-Maine, also called on McNamee, if confirmed, to recuse himself from any matters dealing with the coal and nuclear power plant/resiliency issue.
McNamee committed only to speaking with an ethics counsel to determine if recusal was warranted.
Meanwhile, coal's importance was emphasized by a pair of senators from major producing states, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo. Manchin pointed to the PJM Interconnection's dependence on coal and nuclear sources. He cited the difficulties created as coal plants shut down and prices rise, while Barrasso stressed that coal is "a critical component of electric grid reliability" and must remain an integral part of fuel supply.