Is Honorable the Right Choice to Avoid FERC Pushback?

Arkansas Public Service Commission Chairwoman Colette Honorable.
National Journal
Alex Brown and Clare Foran
Add to Briefcase
Alex Brown Clare Foran
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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