THE LIGHTBULB

President Trump finally chose a new Republican commissioner for a key panel of federal energy regulators. But he did so without naming a Democrat to go with him, setting off a potential battle with Senate Democrats over the future of renewable energy and gas pipeline projects across the country.

On Monday, the White House announced the president intends to nominate James Danly to be a commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Danly, a Republican, currently serves as the panel’s general counsel and would fill a vacancy left by the death in January of former FERC chairman Kevin J. McIntyre. If confirmed by the Senate, Danly would serve until 2023.

But Trump’s White House broke with decades-old tradition by not nominating a Democrat along with Danly, provoking the ire of Senate Democrats who charge Trump with potentially tilting the balance of the normally bipartisan commission.

“The administration should not play politics with our national energy policy and instead follow tradition by formally nominating both a Republican and a Democrat as a pair to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Tuesday.

The five-member energy panel has a sweeping portfolio, regulating portions of the electricity grid, interstate oil transportation and natural gas pipelines. If Danly is confirmed without a Democrat, the panel would move forward on a number of key decisions in the coming months with three Republicans and only one Democrat.

FERC has two openings — one to be filled by a Republican, the other by a Democrat. Congress designed FERC to have no more than three members from the president’s own party. 

“Having a full commission is more likely to get you towards nonpartisanship and independence, both of which have been hallmarks of FERC in the past. It's not just lip service,” said John Moore, who focuses on electric grid issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That gives industry, and everyone else, a lot more faith in power markets.”

The commission showed that independence when in early 2018 the Trump-appointed regulators unanimously rejected a plan from Energy Secretary Rick Perry to rescue struggling coal and nuclear plants.

The recent foot-dragging from the White House, which did not reply to a request for comment, was not for lack of effort on the part of Senate Democrats. 

Earlier this year, Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recommended that energy lawyer Allison Clements replace a Democratic commissioner, Cheryl LaFleur, who stepped down at the end of August.

The Senate under both Barack Obama in 2012 and George W. Bush in 2006 treated Republican and Democratic FERC nominations as a package. Trump did so once in 2017 when he sent the nominations of McIntyre, a Republican and Richard Glick, a Democrat, to the Senate simultaneously.

All FERC commissioners are required to be confirmed by the Senate. The White House could ultimately send Danly's and Clements's nominations to the chamber as a package.

“Putting up only one nominee in this situation is unique,” said Jeff Dennis, who worked at FERC for 11 years before becoming managing director and general counsel at Advanced Energy Economy, a clean-energy trade association. “It would tip the balance more severely at the commission than it is right now.”

Near the top of FERC’s chock-full agenda is a potential new rule to make government-supported renewable energy generation more expensive for 65 million people who get power from PJM Interconnection, a regional transmission system that covers all or parts of 13 states stretching from Illinois to New Jersey, as well as the District of Columbia.

Ten Senate Democrats, worried the new regulations from the GOP-controlled panel could undermine Democratic state policies designed to support clean energy, oppose the yet-to-be-finalized rule, calling it “federal overreach” in an Aug. 29 letter to FERC ​Chairman Neil Chatterjee.

Chatterjee, who joined FERC last year after working as an energy policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is also eager to accelerate approvals of natural gas pipelines and export facilities. 

But Glick, the lone remaining Democrat on the panel, has argued FERC has done a “poor job” taking into account the climate impacts of building more gas pipeline. Chatterjee has said considering how more natural gas infrastructure could speed up climate change is outside the purview of the commission.

So far, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the Senate energy panel, through Danly's nomination must pass, isn't saying whether she would move forward with just the Republican nomination.

“I welcome the President’s decision to nominate a Republican commissioner and to fill a critical seat that has now been vacant for nine full months,” Murkowski said in a statement. “We will need to receive both a formal nomination and all associated paperwork before proceeding to a hearing, which has not been scheduled at this time.”

The Energy 202 will be publishing on a limited schedule while Congress is on recess this week and next week. We will not be publishing Oct. 4, 7 or 11. We will return to our normal schedule on Oct. 14.

POWER PLAYS

— Corn wars: The Trump administration has reached a tentative deal for boosting renewable fuels. The deal is set to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to offset waivers exempting oil refineries from biofuel mandates by “adjusting the targets to reflect a three-year rolling average of exemptions,” Bloomberg News reports. But it all "could still unravel as administration officials work to translate broad commitments into formal regulations. There is a narrow window for the Trump administration to codify the changes, as the EPA is legally required to finalize 2020 biofuel-blending quotas by Nov. 30.”

— Trump administration loses challenge to dismiss Bears Ears suit: A federal judge rejected a bid by the Trump administration to dismiss lawsuits against its decision to markedly shrink Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. “The ruling essentially means legal actions brought by Utah’s five American Indian tribes and several environmental, business and academic groups over the monument can proceed for now,” the Salt Lake Tribune reports. “Trump officials had sought to challenge the legal standing of plaintiffs to bring the case."

— Northeast states release framework for curbing transportation emissions: A coalition of 12 states and the District of Columbia have released a draft policy framework for a plan to band together to reduce their gasoline and diesel emissions in a “cap and invest” system similar to the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. “The plan, which includes Washington, D.C., seeks to cap vehicle emissions from Maine to Virginia and would require hundreds of fuel distributors in participating states to buy pollution permits for the carbon dioxide they produce. That cap would decline over time, mirroring a similar compact that has reduced power plant emissions in the Northeast,” the Boston Globe reports. “The current proposal does not include crucial, potentially controversial details, such as how much pollution would be allowed, how much the permits would cost, and how quickly the caps would decline. That information is slated to be released later this year.”

— Nuclear potential for Puerto Rico’s power: The Energy Department has granted funding for a feasibility study to assess whether nuclear reactors could work for the U.S. territory’s troubled power grid. “The notice to proceed, provided Sunday to the nonprofit Nuclear Alternative Project from the Idaho National Laboratory, cleared the group to begin work as of Monday, allowing the project team to explore the market conditions for nuclear power and gauge public sentiment toward advanced nuclear technologies on the island,” Morning Consult reports. “…The island-wide outages stemming from Hurricane Maria in 2017 depicted in stark terms the disrepair of Puerto Rico’s electric grid, and efforts have since picked up to restore it with reliability and resilience in mind.” A final report is due to the Energy Department by mid-December.

— An iceberg just broke off Antarctica: The massive 600-square-mile iceberg broke off the Amery Ice Shelf in East Antarctica but scientists say the calving event is not related to climate change. “I am excited to see this calving event after all these years. We knew it would happen eventually, but just to keep us all on our toes, it is not exactly where we expected it to be,” said Scripps’s Institute of Oceanography professor Helen Amanda Fricker in a statement, according to CNN. “We don’t think this event is linked to climate change. It’s part of the ice shelf’s normal cycle, where we see major calving events every 60-70 years.”

— PG&E’s wildfire woes: California's largest utility says it has completed less than a third of the tree-trimming work that it set out to finish this year to prevent debris from sparking deadly wildfires. “PG&E told a federal judge Tuesday that as of Sept. 21, the company had completed 760 miles out of the 2,455 miles of power lines where it intends to take extra steps to cut back vegetation,” the San Francisco Chronicle reports. “The company said its ability to meet the tree-trimming target by the end of the year depends on whether it can ‘significantly increase the number of qualified personnel engaged’ in the effort.”

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The United States Energy Association hosts the 12th Annual Energy Supply Forum.

Coming Up

  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts an event on Venezuela’s water crisis on Thursday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— Dolphins have returned to the Potomac River: The Potomac River is teeming with dolphins. In some places scientists have counted more than 1,000. And in a potential sign of healthier waters, researchers say they've documented a wild dolphin birth in the river that five decades was so polluted that President Lyndon B. Johnson called it a “national disgrace,” The Post’s Karin Brulliard writes.