The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A top energy regulator is in turmoil over climate rules

The little-known Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is increasingly under fire over how — and whether — it should address climate change

Pipelines at the Southern California Gas Co. natural gas storage facility in Santa Clarita, Calif. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg News)
11 min

In February, a little-known federal agency for the first time laid down rules requiring energy regulators to consider new gas pipelines’ effects on climate change and environmental justice. The agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), would have to analyze the environmental effects of any project that emits a set amount of planet-warming greenhouse gases.

The move thrilled environmentalists — but it didn’t last.

Fossil fuel industry groups, Republican lawmakers and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), publicly denounced the changes. They accused the agency’s Democratic chairman, a President Biden nominee, of trying to destroy gas companies, destabilize the country’s energy supply and favor renewable power. The commission backtracked quickly, voting in March to recategorize the policies as mere drafts and ensuring they wouldn’t apply to new gas projects.

Amid rising gas prices, the war in Ukraine and legislative inertia on Capitol Hill, the clearest path for climate action would appear to be federal regulation. But the commission’s about-face shows that even that route faces major political head winds, adding to the growing frustration among U.S. climate activists and scientists. Other major regulations aimed at slashing carbon emissions could be weakened or derailed by the outcome of a case pending before the Supreme Court.

“We’re very concerned the agency may be backsliding,” said Jason Rylander, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group. “The science is very clear that the U.S., really the world, has to transition away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible and that every additional investment in fossil fuel infrastructure commits us to that much more emissions.”

Low-profile and independent, FERC has extraordinary influence over whether, and how quickly, the United States will transition to cleaner sources of energy. And the debate over its role in setting climate policy also threatens to paralyze the agency on other, less controversial issues.

The agency plays a central role in the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. Companies that want to build new interstate gas pipelines and gas export terminals have to win the commission’s approval. Its authority over regional transmission means it can bolster construction of new transmission lines connecting more wind and solar power to the grid, a top priority for renewable energy advocates.

The commission has long operated on the concept that it should be a neutral arbiter, indifferent to whether a project relies on gas or solar power. Its core obligation is to keep energy prices “just and reasonable” by watchdogging the nation’s energy industry and encouraging competition. Though its five commissioners are nominated by the president, no more than three may be of the same political party, and it is known for reaching bipartisan agreements.

But more recently, FERC’s power to approve major energy projects has thrown it into one of the most charged subjects in the country — a transformation that has only accelerated as scientists’ warnings about inaction on climate change grow more dire.

Frustrated by Congress’ inability to pass climate legislation, liberal Democrats and environmentalists who previously saw FERC as a rubber stamp for fossil fuel projects are now pushing it to block new gas pipelines and to speed construction of transmission line projects. And they have become deeply invested in the future of the grid, in part because of research showing that the United States may need to triple the size of its electricity transmission systems in order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Yet the commission’s vote to scale back its new pipeline policies shows that its ability to address climate change is encountering the same resistance as the rest of Biden’s climate agenda.

Political and legal obstacles have so far prevented the administration from moving major climate legislation through Congress or making good on its promise to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal land. Though determined to move the nation away from fossil fuels, Biden is in a difficult place, caught between focusing on gas prices and helping Europe through an energy crisis while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

As Democrats’ swing vote in the Senate, Manchin has blocked the party from passing significant climate legislation. He has also turned his attention to FERC, using his position as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to criticize FERC Chairman Richard Glick’s efforts to incorporate climate science into the agency’s pipeline review process.

“Your work swings the pendulum far to the left,” Manchin said at a March Senate hearing, blaming the commission’s Democratic majority for obstructing gas projects in West Virginia.

On the same day FERC voted to rescind its climate policies, it also approved three gas projects that had been pending for months. Earlier this month, regulators unanimously issued a key authorization for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile gas pipeline from West Virginia to southern Virginia that has run into repeated setbacks. Manchin is among its most vocal supporters.

Having withdrawn his most ambitious climate policies, Glick faces accusations from climate activists that he bowed to political pressure and criticism from conservatives that he tried to go too far. Though the Senate confirmed him to the commission without controversy five years ago, opposition from Manchin and Republicans could cost him the chairmanship when his term ends in June.

White House officials declined to comment on Glick’s future, but people familiar with the discussions said Biden is likely to nominate him to serve another term as chairman. Republicans on the committee are unlikely to support him, leaving Manchin with the power to block Glick’s confirmation. Manchin’s spokeswoman Sam Runyon did not respond to a request for comment.

Traditionally unbound by the agenda of whoever is in the White House, FERC seldom finds itself under fire.

But in interviews, former commissioners, environmental advocates and close observers of the agency said they are concerned that worsening gridlock in Congress has pushed both parties to treat FERC as another weapon to be wielded in either advancing or blocking efforts to tackle climate change.

“For most of the time that I’ve been in practice, I looked at FERC as an oasis from partisan politics and I think the agency saw itself that way also,” said Jonathan Schneider, a lawyer whose clients include public- and investor-owned utility companies. “Now my impression is the commission is responding to more political pressure than ever in its history.”

When Democrats on the commission voted earlier this year to approve new plans to assess the climate impacts of expanding gas infrastructure, they said they were responding to multiple federal court rulings finding the agency’s environmental studies deficient. Over the past few years, federal courts have repeatedly vacated permits and authorizations for gas pipelines, sometimes ordering FERC to revise its environmental assessments to include greenhouse gas emissions. The new policies would have required environmental assessments for projects with more than 100,000 metric tons per year of carbon emissions.

But Republicans saw the policies as government overreach and an effort to shift the country away from fossil fuels.

At a hearing last month, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) accused the commission’s three Democrats of being “a political arm of the White House.” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) threatened to dissolve the agency. FERC’s two Republican commissioners criticized the colleagues seated next to them for adopting the policies in a 3-2 partisan vote.

Neil Chatterjee — President Donald Trump’s choice to head the agency, a Republican who once served as an energy adviser to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — called the commission’s pipeline policies “justifiably troubling” and commended Glick for pulling them back. Though Democrats approve of the commission’s plans today, using FERC as a tool in the fight against climate change could make existing divisions even more bitter, he said.

“Let’s say we get Trump 2.0 and we’ve blessed overreach at FERC during the Biden administration, then you’ll have no restraints,” Chatterjee said. “It’s really important that FERC remain a beacon of stability.”

For his part, Glick has denied he is being steered by political pressure.

“Even though we currently have three Democrats and two Republicans, my colleagues and I work hard to develop consensus approaches as often is possible,” he said in a statement, adding that more than 88 percent of FERC’s orders in recent years have been approved unanimously.

Still, the growing rift on the commission is increasingly obvious. Commissioner James Danly, a Trump nominee, frequently posts online his separate opinions on cases before the commission, including criticism of the Biden administration’s energy policies and correspondence with lawmakers in which he lists all of the gas pipelines applications that he says the agency has unreasonably delayed.

In an April 21 dissent, Danly assailed the commission’s vote to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking, a bureaucratic step along the way to a final rule changing how transmission gets planned and paid for.

“A transmission planning revolution opposed by half of the country risks becoming a transmission planning civil war,” he wrote of the 4-to-1 vote in which he was the lone objector. “The Commission should not cram ‘reforms’ down the throats of opponents on issues of such deep division.”

Through a spokesperson, Danly declined to comment.

Democrats and some Republicans said the agency began to experience constant pressure during the Trump administration, when the White House was eager to show it was trying to save coal miners’ jobs. Energy Secretary Rick Perry asked the commission to adopt new regulations that would compensate coal and nuclear power plants for adding to the reliability of the grid. Perry argued that too many of these plants were being driven out of the market by cheaper gas and renewable energy.

Federal energy regulators, including four who had been nominated by Trump, rejected the idea unanimously.

In 2020, Chatterjee, Trump’s choice to head the agency, was demoted by the White House after he began laying the groundwork for regional power administrators to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions, the main contributor to global warming.

Today, both power companies and environmental advocates fear that increasing partisanship on the commission could paralyze FERC, stalling action on new energy proposals.

Glick can continue to serve on the commission through the end of this year after his term expires. If he is not reconfirmed, the commission would be left with two Democrats and two Republicans. While tied votes on the commission are not a new phenomenon when there is a vacancy, the political divide among this group of commissioners could make it difficult for them to decide contentious cases.

For gas utilities and pipeline companies, a deadlock at FERC could result in delays and leave the industry wary of investing in new projects at a time when the Biden administration is trying to export more gas to European allies. Of particular concern to the industry is the possibility that the commission’s plans to change how gas pipelines are reviewed could linger unaddressed.

“Changes in policies or delays in FERC’s review process could detrimentally impact the ability of natural gas utilities to fulfill their state-mandated obligations to provide access to affordable, safe and reliable energy,” Karen Harbert, president and chief executive of the American Gas Association, which represents some of the country’s largest gas utilities, said in a statement.

Supporters of renewable energy have just as much to lose. Energy from wind turbines and solar panels is surging, and 31 states have adopted clean energy mandates. But a recent Energy Department report found that while the new electric generation capacity needed to meet Biden’s 2030 clean energy goals is already in early development, there is a massive backlog of solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal and nuclear projects waiting to connect to the grid. Under Glick, FERC has launched an effort to change interstate transmission planning rules that could take years to complete.

John Moore of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that no matter which party controls the commission, it’s too late for FERC to walk away from addressing climate change. The agency’s job is to plan for the future, he said, including the eventual replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy.

“The reality is climate change has been politicized,” Moore said. “But that doesn’t mean FERC can ignore it.”

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