Is Honorable the Right Choice to Avoid FERC Pushback?

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Arkansas Public Service Commission Chairwoman Colette Honorable.
National Journal
Clare Foran Alex Brown
Oct. 8, 2013, 2 a.m.

After see­ing his first choice to head the Fed­er­al En­ergy Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion re­jec­ted for a per­ceived “anti-coal” stance, Pres­id­ent Obama may be look­ing for a prag­mat­ic per­son­al­ity as his second choice for the ob­scure but power­ful agency.

If so, Colette Hon­or­able — the lead­er of the Arkan­sas Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion who is re­por­ted to be among Obama’s po­ten­tial picks — may fit the bill.

“Everything I’ve seen from her re­cord shows that she would be a fairly im­par­tial judge, and [she] has a track re­cord already in Arkan­sas of someone who takes the role ser­i­ously,” said Thomas Pyle, pres­id­ent of the Amer­ic­an En­ergy Al­li­ance, one of the groups that helped scuttle the con­firm­a­tion of Ron Binz to the FERC. “[She] listens to both sides and tries to ad­ju­dic­ate as op­posed to le­gis­late.”

Binz and Hon­or­able come from sim­il­ar back­grounds as state-level reg­u­lat­ors. Binz headed the Col­or­ado Pub­lic Util­it­ies Com­mis­sion, but ran in­to op­pos­i­tion from con­ser­vat­ive groups, Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors, and at least one coal-state Demo­crat — Sen. Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia — who deemed him hos­tile to coal. Hon­or­able has so far earned a repu­ta­tion as an even-handed of­fi­cial.

“If you want some­body who’s fair, some­body who’s not a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure, some­body that brings people to­geth­er and will weigh all the evid­ence … she’d be hard to beat,” said Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Beebe, who ap­poin­ted Hon­or­able to her cur­rent post. Hon­or­able pre­vi­ously served as his chief of staff. “Her in­teg­rity is un­ques­tion­able. She’s hon­est and fair and takes that role very ser­i­ously. She listens to all sides.”

Steve Pat­ter­son, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Arkan­sas Ad­vanced En­ergy As­so­ci­ation, echoed that sen­ti­ment. “She’s been a very bal­anced and thought­ful lead­er on the Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion,” he said. While Hon­or­able pushed util­it­ies to ex­pand their en­ergy port­fo­li­os, “at the same time, I think she’s been very fair.” Pat­ter­son cited a re­cent com­mis­sion plan to ret­ro­fit a coal plant, al­low­ing it to con­tin­ue op­er­a­tions un­der new En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency stand­ards.

Hon­or­able, 43, has served in her cur­rent role since Janu­ary 2011. She has worked un­der Sen. Mark Pry­or, D-Ark., when he was the state’s at­tor­ney gen­er­al, as well as for Gov. Mike Beebe, also a Demo­crat. Beebe ap­poin­ted her to the com­mis­sion in 2007.

Hon­or­able de­clined to com­ment for this story, and White House of­fi­cials would not con­firm she is be­ing con­sidered for the po­s­i­tion.

Arkan­sas At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Dustin McDaniel is among Hon­or­able’s ad­mirers. “She works harder than any­one I know to make sure things are done right,” he said. “Since she be­came PSC chair in Arkan­sas, she has been a lead­er in the util­ity-reg­u­lat­ory com­munity na­tion­wide.” McDaniel said he be­lieves Hon­or­able would earn re­spect from all sec­tors if chosen to head FERC.

For some, the talk of Hon­or­able as a mod­er­ate is il­lus­trat­ive of the ex­tent to which par­tis­an in­terests hi­jacked Binz’s hear­ing. “The de­bate about Mr. Binz was driv­en to a large de­gree by mis­un­der­stand­ings or dis­tor­tions about the role of FERC,” said Keith Chu, spokes­man for Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “Chair­man Wyden does not want to see a re­peat of the kind of pub­lic-re­la­tions cam­paigns, either for or against, that char­ac­ter­ized the dis­cus­sion about Mr. Binz. FERC over­sees a lot of dif­fer­ent is­sues and has a long his­tory of bi­par­tis­an­ship, so I’m not sure that the mod­er­ate/con­ser­vat­ive/lib­er­al frame­work makes a lot of sense here.”

Binz agreed with that as­sess­ment dur­ing a Sunday in­ter­view on Platts En­ergy TV. “Clearly the coal in­dustry and util­it­ies very close to the coal in­dustry were con­cerned about my nom­in­a­tion,” Binz said. “But then that got sup­ple­men­ted by a bunch of right-wing ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tions; many of them were fun­ded by the Koch broth­ers…. They put pres­sure on a lot of law­makers — they scared up a lot of things in the me­dia so that what I was con­fron­ted with in Wash­ing­ton was a ca­ri­ca­ture of me, a fic­tion­al Ron Binz that I didn’t even re­cog­nize.”

If the even­tu­al nom­in­ee — Hon­or­able or not — is to find an easi­er path than Binz, he or she will have to avoid the op­pos­i­tion of the groups that op­posed the former Col­or­ado reg­u­lat­or. While Pyle signaled his group may be more amen­able to Hon­or­able, he fired a warn­ing shot to the ad­min­is­tra­tion about its next nom­in­ee. “So far everything we’ve seen about Ms. Hon­or­able shows that they are cer­tainly con­sid­er­ing less-ra­dio­act­ive can­did­ates,” he said. “We cer­tainly hope they’ve learned their les­son from the Ron Binz nom­in­a­tion.”

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