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."