Nominee for Energy Regulator Grilled at Three-Hour Hearing

Senate Banking Committee member, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., gestures as he  questions Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, during the committee's hearing where Bernanke delivered the central bank's Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress.
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Sept. 17, 2013, 4:34 p.m.

The fate of Ron Binz, Pres­id­ent Obama’s choice to head the ob­scure but power­ful Fed­er­al En­ergy Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion, re­mains a fo­cus of con­tro­versy fol­low­ing a gruel­ing, three-hour con­firm­a­tion hear­ing Tues­day. The plot sur­round­ing Binz’s nom­in­a­tion is con­vo­luted and far from over, so here’s what you need to know from the hear­ing be­fore the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee and the next acts in the saga.

Tues­day’s hear­ing provided Binz, former chair­man of the Col­or­ado Pub­lic Util­it­ies Com­mis­sion, his first op­por­tun­ity to re­spond dir­ectly to cri­ti­cism he’s faced over the last few months from a wide range of con­ser­vat­ive and coal-in­dustry sources, in­clud­ing mul­tiple ed­it­or­i­als in The Wall Street Journ­al.

On nat­ur­al gas:

Binz pushed back on the char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of a com­ment he made earli­er this year that nat­ur­al gas is a “dead-end fuel” by 2035.

“What I was talk­ing about is if we take ser­i­ously the need to re­duce car­bon in our gen­er­a­tion fleet, nat­ur­al gas is a very great fuel for do­ing that right now,” Binz said in re­sponse to a ques­tion from En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Chair­man Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “It has half the car­bon emis­sions of coal and oil, but even­tu­ally as we move for­ward and learn how to do se­quest­ra­tion, that will be­ne­fit nat­ur­al gas in the long run.”

He went out of his way to talk highly of the fuel. “I fully em­brace nat­ur­al gas. I don’t want something I said prob­ably un-care­fully to be taken out of con­text.”

He tried to sep­ar­ate his per­son­al views from his po­ten­tial role as chair­man of FERC, which over­sees in­ter­state power trans­mis­sion, oil and gas pipelines, and hy­dro­elec­tri­city pro­jects. “The as­sump­tion we will de­car­bon­ize — that will not be up to me, it will prob­ably be up to Con­gress or [the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency] or the courts,” Binz said in re­sponse to a ques­tion from Sen. John Bar­rasso, R-Wyo. “I’m just speak­ing as someone in­formed about the en­ergy in­dustry.”

On coal:

He said his work help­ing im­ple­ment a re­cent Col­or­ado clean-air law was not anti-coal. “The le­gis­la­tion told us to ap­prove a plan to com­ply with fu­ture EPA reg­u­la­tions,” Binz said in an ex­change with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

On re­new­able en­ergy:

In re­sponse to a ques­tion from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., about what role FERC has in ex­pand­ing re­new­able en­ergy, Binz dodged: “I think FERC’s role is to en­sure that whatever en­ergy fuel fu­ture this coun­try finds it­self in, we have pre­pared in­fra­struc­ture to al­low that.”

He also said he wouldn’t pick win­ners or losers among fuel sources. “It’s more in the nature of re­mov­ing bar­ri­ers as op­posed to ac­tu­ally push­ing them for­ward,” Binz said on set­ting elec­tric-trans­mis­sion rules for all en­ergy sources.

On cli­mate change:

He told Sen. Mark Ud­all, D-Colo., he does not be­lieve FERC has a role in cli­mate-change policy. The White House “nev­er asked me for any com­mit­ment” to help carry out Obama’s cli­mate agenda, Binz said.

On help in his con­firm­a­tion pro­cess from a PR firm:

Binz apo­lo­gized to En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources rank­ing mem­ber Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, for ap­par­ently giv­ing her the wrong im­pres­sion about his co­ordin­a­tion with well-con­nec­ted Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ants, in­clud­ing VennSquared Com­mu­nic­a­tions Pres­id­ent Mi­chael Mee­han and two former aides to Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev. He said he’s told Mee­han’s firm to stop send­ing him ma­ter­i­al, but that he was ini­tially glad to re­ceive help re­spond­ing to the cri­ti­cism.

Wyden came to Binz’s de­fense to­ward the end of the hear­ing. “If any out­side group has the right to op­pose a nom­in­a­tion — which they do, in fair­ness — an out­side group has a right to be able to of­fer the coun­ter­ar­gu­ments,” Wyden said.

No sen­at­or asked about Re­id’s in­volve­ment in Obama’s se­lec­tion of Binz, in­clud­ing a claim made by Demo­crat­ic FERC Com­mis­sion­er John Nor­ris that Re­id in­sisted the White House choose Binz over Nor­ris.

What’s next:

Cit­ing con­cerns about Binz’s im­par­ti­al­ity and work with out­side groups on his nom­in­a­tion, Murkowski an­nounced at the end of Tues­day’s hear­ing that she is “re­luct­antly” not plan­ning to sup­port the nom­in­a­tion.

To get a ma­jor­ity of the com­mit­tee’s sup­port, both Manchin and fel­low Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana — who have both ex­pressed con­cerns about Binz’s re­cord — must vote to sup­port Binz. Landrieu op­ted not to ques­tion Binz at the hear­ing, pos­sibly choos­ing in­stead to ques­tion him in writ­ing (Binz’s an­swers to writ­ten ques­tions are ex­pec­ted with­in a couple weeks). Manchin ques­tioned Binz on coal’s role in the na­tion’s fu­ture en­ergy land­scape, but he went to great lengths to say he’s will­ing to listen to Binz.

Binz does have a path for­ward even without a pos­it­ive vote in the com­mit­tee. Sen­ate rules al­low a nom­in­ee to move for­ward to a floor vote even without an af­firm­at­ive or tie vote in com­mit­tee. This tac­tic has been used rarely, and suc­cess­fully used even more rarely.

Ac­cord­ing to Sen­ate data com­piled by Murkowski’s staff for Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily, since 1987 only five nom­in­a­tions that got a neut­ral re­port­ing from a com­mit­tee were brought to the floor, and only one was ap­proved. Sim­il­arly, only five neg­at­ive re­ports on nom­in­ees were sent to the Sen­ate floor and just one was ap­proved.

The com­mit­tee has not yet sched­uled a vote on Binz’s nom­in­a­tion.

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