Neil Chatterjee, the new chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has pledged to keep politics out of the agency’s decisions, including high-profile issues about whether to prop up coal and nuclear plants that have been beset by competition from renewables and natural gas.

Chatterjee told reporters Wednesday he has a different outlook since he first joined the commission thanks to the influence of the outgoing chairman Kevin McIntyre, who gave up the chairman’s role last week citing severe health problems. McIntyre was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the summer of 2017.

Chatterjee had been a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) before joining the commission as acting chairman in 2017 and he was openly sympathetic to President Trump and the Energy Department’s plan to aide ailing coal and nuclear plants and prevent them from shutting down. Trump has vowed to do something and one of the president’s biggest contributors, coal tycoon Robert Murray, has lobbied hard for a change.

However, the five-member commission voted unanimously to reject the Energy Department’s first plan, and it now anticipates a new plan. It is also conducting a study of reliability and resilience of the electricity grid, two factors the Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s team cited in its initial effort. Thousands of individuals, environmental groups, corporations and others have filed comments to the commission.

“When I first came to the commission last fall, coming from a partisan legislative role in which I worked on behalf of my boss to fight against the retirement of coal-fired generation… you know initially I was sympathetic to Secretary Perry’ s proposal because of my concern for these rural communities, because of my concern about what the retirement of nuclear units might mean for mitigating carbon emissions,” Chatterjee said Wednesday in a briefing for reporters at FERC’s offices.

“But as I evolved into the role, I recognize that is not part of our record. That doesn’t figure into the statute that governs us.”

Chatterjee added: “I had to make a decision based on the record before us" and that any ruling by the commission would have to be grounded in that record.

FERC has been in the spotlight an unusual amount over the past year, not only because of the issue of subsidizing coal and nuclear plants but also because its approval is needed for the construction of interstate natural gas pipelines and for liquefied natural gas export terminals. Moreover, while a key regulatory agency for pipelines and electricity grids that cross state borders, FERC must come to grips with local and state initiatives in many places to boost solar and wind power generation.

The commission is currently down to just four members, divided equally between Democrats and Republicans. Many issues could end in deadlock, which would prevent those issues from moving forward.

Trump has nominated Bernard McNamee to fill the empty slot, but he awaits confirmation by the Senate.  Currently working as a political appointee at the Energy Department, McNamee had defended the department's initial plan to subsidy coal and nuclear energy in front of the Senate.

Chatterjee said he would try to move ahead without waiting for McNamee. “There’s just too much on our plates to wait for the unpredictable Senate confirmation process,” he said.

The commission is also examining cybersecurity issues, something Chatterjee said he was working on closely with Democratic commissioner Richard Glick.

When Chatterjee voted against the DOE’s proposal to aide coal and nuclear, he said that the “proceeding speaks to the prudence of considering, as soon as practicable, whether interim measures may be needed to avoid near-term bulk power system resilience challenges that could result from the rapid, unprecedented changes in our generation resource mix."

But he said that the issues seemed more complicated now.

“For me the complexity of these questions weigh heavily on me,” he said. “Because I am very pro-market, I also believe fundamentally in state rights and the ability for states to make local decisions about their energy futures. The reality is that these two constructs that I believe in my core are colliding right now. States are taking actions regarding their local generation mix that are having a broader impact on competitive markets.”

The former McConnell aide repeatedly praised McIntyre. A fellow Republican and former Jones Day lawyer who had done a lot of work before FERC on behalf of corporations prior to becoming chairman, McIntyre publicly differed from Trump administration officials who suggested declaring a state of emergency to help protect coal and nuclear plants.

“He could not be more strenuous in saying that politics should not be allowed to interfere with the work of the commission,” Chatterjee said, “and that has really helped me grow in my role as I’ve made the transition from formerly partisan legislative aide to independent regulator.”


— Senate Republicans tell Trump to end Saudi nuclear talks: Five Republican senators called on Trump in a Wednesday letter to end nuclear energy talks with Saudi Arabia following the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. “We already held serious reservations about negotiations for such an agreement,” Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Todd C. Young (Ind.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Dean Heller (Nev.) wrote in the letter, as The Post’s Karoun Demirjian reports.

What the five are saying: That they would threaten to file legislation to block any civil agreements with Saudi Arabia if Trump doesn't agree to stop negotiations “for the foreseeable future.” The senators are also agitating for a commitment from the Saudis to develop a nuclear program for civil proposes only.

What Trump and the Saudis are talking about in the first place: The U.S. and Saudi governments are trying to come to an agreement under the Atomic Energy Act for U.S. companies to help the kingdom build nuclear reactors and diversify the oil-rich nation's energy portfolio.

— “It is disappointing": A lawyer for Ryan Zinke said the interior secretary has not been contacted by the Justice Department, responding to reports from The Post and others that the Interior’s inspector general referred one of its investigations into Zinke to the DOJ, according to Politico. “The Secretary has not been contacted or notified of any DOJ investigation or Inspector General referral,” said Stephen Ryan, Zinke’s attorney. “It is disappointing that unsubstantiated and anonymous sources have described an IG office referral to members of the media, as this violates DOJ and IG policy direction. The Secretary has done nothing wrong."


— “The planet warmed more than we thought”: The world’s oceans have been accumulating much more heat than scientists previously realized, according to a troubling new study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. “Over the past quarter-century, Earth’s oceans have retained 60 percent more heat each year than scientists previously had thought,” The Post’s Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis report.

What that means: It's a signal that global warming is occurring faster than has been predicted. “The difference represents an enormous amount of additional energy, originating from the sun and trapped by Earth’s atmosphere — the yearly amount representing more than eight times the world’s annual energy consumption… The higher-than-expected amount of heat in the oceans means more heat is being retained within Earth’s climate system each year, rather than escaping into space."

— Here may be why this summer's weather was so freaky: Another new study, published Wednesday in Science Advances, connects the behavior of the jet stream during the summer to more severe heat waves, droughts, fires and floods, The Post's Jason Samenow reports.

What is the jet stream? It is a current of air snaking around the Northern Hemisphere, separating warm, tropical air from cooler, polar air. 

What is happening to it? It is becoming more erratic. And as Samenow writes, the "altered jet-stream behavior is important because when it takes deep excursions to the south in the summer, it sets up a collision between cool air from the north and the summer’s torrid heat, often spurring excessive rain. But when the jet stream retreats to the north, bulging heat domes form underneath it, leading to record heat and dry spells."

— Storm watch: A developing storm system that has threatened the south-central United States with severe weather this week is likely to bring heavy rain to the mid-Atlantic on Friday, The Post’s Ian Livingston reports. If you live in the Washington area, “thunderstorms and flooding cannot be ruled out" for Friday.


— A pair of electric car pair-ups: Hyundai and Kia announced they will launch solar charging technology for some of their vehicles, including for hybrid and electric models, to help lower global emissions and meet emission regulation targets, Reuters reports. Meanwhile, Volkswagen and Ford are discussing potentially partnering on the development of electric and self-driving vehicles, Reuters also reports


Coming Up

  • Bracewell's Policy Resolution Group hosts a post-election webinar on Nov. 7.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing to consider FERC nominee Bernard McNamee, Rita Baranwal to head the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and Raymond David Vela to be director of the National Park Service on Nov. 15.

Ruth Gates in 2015 jumps off a boat into Hawaii’s Kaneohe Bay. (Caleb Jones/AP)

— Renowned coral scientist and conservation advocate dies at 56: "Ruth Gates, a preeminent coral-reef biologist and marine conservationist best remembered for advocating the breeding of a 'super coral' that could resist the effects of global warming and replenish rapidly deteriorating reefs worldwide, died Oct. 25 at a hospital in Kailua, Hawaii," Christie Wilcox writes for The Post.