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.”
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.
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.