Harry Reid’s Backing Heightens Controversy Over Energy Nominee

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 4, 2013, following a Democratic strategy session.
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Sept. 16, 2013, 6:01 p.m.

The ap­par­ent be­hind-the-scenes in­volve­ment of Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., in the se­lec­tion of Pres­id­ent Obama’s nom­in­ee to lead an ob­scure but power­ful fed­er­al en­ergy agency has heightened the drama in an already con­tro­ver­sial con­firm­a­tion pro­cess that be­gins in earn­est on Tues­day.

The agency, the Fed­er­al En­ergy Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion, is es­pe­cially im­port­ant to Re­id’s state, which re­lies on FERC to ap­prove trans­mis­sion sys­tems for its grow­ing re­new­able-en­ergy sec­tor. The nom­in­ee, Ron Binz, is re­portedly close friends with out­go­ing FERC Chair­man Jon Welling­hoff, who is from Nevada and is in turn close friends with Re­id.

Binz, a former chair of the Col­or­ado Pub­lic Util­it­ies Com­mis­sion, is ex­pec­ted to face a gruel­ing con­firm­a­tion battle Tues­day be­fore the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee. In re­cent months, a pub­lic-re­la­tions war has broken out between Binz’s de­tract­ors and back­ers. Op­pon­ents in­clude the Wall Street Journ­al ed­it­or­i­al page and con­ser­vat­ive groups such as the Amer­ic­an En­ergy Al­li­ance and the In­sti­tute for En­ergy Re­search; sup­port­ers in­clude left-lean­ing groups such as the Cali­for­nia-based Green Tech Ac­tion Fund and VennSquared Com­mu­nic­a­tions, based in Wash­ing­ton.

FERC over­sees in­ter­state power trans­mis­sion and oil and gas pipelines, as well as hy­dro­elec­tri­city pro­jects. While it does not have a dir­ect role in poli­cy­mak­ing, it has be­come a proxy in the fight over Obama’s cli­mate-change agenda.

Binz is ex­pec­ted to face ques­tion­ing about com­ments he’s made on nat­ur­al gas, call­ing it a “dead end,” and about his role in de­vel­op­ing a Col­or­ado law that aimed to shut down coal-fired power plants and shift to nat­ur­al gas in­stead. In par­tic­u­lar, Demo­crat­ic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia and Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana, who have not yet taken a pub­lic po­s­i­tion on Binz, may well have con­cerns about his views on fossil fuels.

How Manchin and Landrieu ul­ti­mately vote on Binz will be key, but the sen­at­or who mat­ters most in his con­firm­a­tion pro­cess is Re­id.

On Fri­day, Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily re­por­ted that Re­id had per­suaded the White House to drop its ini­tial pick to head FERC, cur­rent Demo­crat­ic Com­mis­sion­er John Nor­ris, in fa­vor of Binz, cit­ing an in­ter­view Nor­ris did with the trade pub­lic­a­tion Trans­mis­sion Hub.

“Re­id’s chief of staff in­formed me that Re­id in­ter­vened with the White House to stop my ap­point­ment as chair be­cause, as told to me by his chief of staff, I was “˜too pro-coal,’ “ Nor­ris told Trans­mis­sion Hub. Nor­ris also told the pub­lic­a­tion that he be­lieves his nom­in­a­tion was blocked be­cause Re­id wanted a FERC chair­man from a West­ern state.

Kristen Orth­man, spokes­wo­man for Re­id’s of­fice, denied Nor­ris’s claims. “Un­for­tu­nately Com­mis­sion­er Nor­ris is wrongly blam­ing oth­ers and mak­ing ac­cus­a­tions that are not ac­cur­ate,” Orth­man said in an e-mail to Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily on Sat­urday.

But a Re­pub­lic­an en­ergy lob­by­ist, MWR Strategies Pres­id­ent Mike McK­enna, said Nor­ris told him the story about his ex­change with Re­id’s chief of staff six months ago. “Re­id call­ing Nor­ris a li­ar — and that is what he did — is com­pletely out­rageous,” McK­enna said. “Giv­en that he [Nor­ris] has a lot more to lose by speak­ing out than Harry Re­id, there is no doubt in my mind that John is telling the truth.”

Re­id has a track re­cord of sup­port­ing clean en­ergy over fossil fuels, said his former spokes­man Jim Man­ley.

“Sen­at­or Re­id is very strong sup­port­er of re­new­ables, and a staunch op­pon­ent of coal, be­liev­ing there is no such thing as clean coal,” Man­ley said. “And so as part of that, he’ll do what he can to pro­tect in­di­vidu­al nom­in­ees.”

Nevada has a lot at stake with FERC, es­pe­cially its hand­ling of re­new­able-en­ergy trans­mis­sion, which is an is­sue Welling­hoff has pri­or­it­ized as chair­man. Nevada ranked second in the na­tion in net elec­tri­city gen­er­a­tion from geo­therm­al and sol­ar en­ergy, and 90 per­cent of its en­ergy comes from out of the state, ac­cord­ing to the En­ergy In­form­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Orth­man, Re­id’s cur­rent spokes­wo­man, didn’t com­ment on Re­id’s po­ten­tial be­hind-the-scenes in­volve­ment in the con­firm­a­tion pro­cess, but simply re­stated Re­id’s sup­port for Binz.

“Sen­at­or Re­id sup­ports the pres­id­ent’s nom­in­ee, who has strong bi­par­tis­an sup­port from people who know FERC bet­ter than any­one,” Orth­man said, re­fer­ring to a let­ter that former FERC com­mis­sion­ers wrote in sup­port of Binz.

Adding to the scru­tiny sur­round­ing Re­id’s in­volve­ment is the fact that two former aides to the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­er are work­ing with VennSquared Com­mu­nic­a­tions on Binz’s nom­in­a­tion. Last week, The Wash­ing­ton Times re­por­ted on e-mails that re­vealed Chris Miller, who left the lead­er’s of­fice earli­er this year as his top en­ergy and en­vir­on­ment aide, and former deputy staff dir­ect­or Kai An­der­son have been help­ing prep Binz for the Sen­ate con­firm­a­tion pro­cess along with Mi­chael Mee­han, pres­id­ent and CEO of VennSquared.

In an in­ter­view, Mee­han denied any co­ordin­a­tion with Re­id’s of­fice. An­der­son and Miller op­ted not to com­ment for this story.

“I haven’t talked to Sen­at­or Re­id or any­one in his of­fice on this top­ic,” Mee­han said. “I’m not aware that Re­id called up Chris and Kai to help with this nom­in­a­tion, and cer­tainly not me.”

Re­id’s role in pro­mot­ing Binz for the FERC post may nev­er be­come clear, but it is not sur­pris­ing to some who know Re­id best. “He’s an aw­fully Ma­chiavel­lian char­ac­ter some­times,” Man­ley said.

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