Reid Pushed White House to Appoint Energy Regulator Now Targeted by Conservatives

Sen. Harry Reid
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Sept. 13, 2013, 12:29 p.m.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., per­suaded the White House to drop its nom­in­ee to lead an ob­scure but im­port­ant fed­er­al en­ergy agency and re­place him with an ap­pointee whose con­firm­a­tion pro­cess is now em­broiled in con­tro­versy, ac­cord­ing to the trade pub­lic­a­tion Trans­mis­sion Hub.

Re­id con­sidered Pres­id­ent Obama’s ori­gin­al choice for chair­man of the Fed­er­al En­ergy Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion, John Nor­ris, to be too “pro-coal,” the Hub re­por­ted Thursday. Obama then tapped Ron Binz, former chair of the Col­or­ado Pub­lic Util­it­ies Com­mis­sion, to be FERC chair­man.

Binz’s con­firm­a­tion hear­ing is sched­uled for Tues­day be­fore the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee, and some fire­works are ex­pec­ted. Con­tro­versy over Binz’s nom­in­a­tion has es­cal­ated over the past couple of months, in­clud­ing a scath­ing Wall Street Journ­al ed­it­or­i­al in Ju­ly de­scrib­ing Binz as the “most im­port­ant and rad­ic­al Obama nom­in­ee you’ve nev­er heard of.”

The Journ­al ed­it­or­i­al board, along with con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, some Demo­crats (in­clud­ing Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.), and the coal in­dustry have cri­ti­cized Binz’s past work. This in­cludes a state law he helped write that aimed to shut down coal-fired power plants and his up­front philo­sophy of fa­vor­ing re­new­able en­ergy.

FERC over­sees the in­ter­state trans­mis­sion of elec­tri­city and oil and nat­ur­al-gas pipelines, as well as hy­dro­elec­tri­city pro­jects. It does not have any dir­ect in­flu­ence in power-gen­er­a­tion policy-mak­ing.

Obama first nom­in­ated Nor­ris to FERC in 2010. He is the second-most seni­or Demo­crat on the five-mem­ber pan­el after out­go­ing Chair­man Jon Welling­hoff.

Nor­ris was pre­vi­ously chief of staff to Ag­ri­cul­ture Sec­ret­ary Tom Vil­sack, a former gov­ernor of Iowa. Nor­ris’s roots are in Iowa; he was chair­man of the Iowa Util­it­ies Board and served on sev­er­al oth­er util­ity or­gan­iz­a­tions based in the state. He earned both his un­der­gradu­ate and gradu­ate de­grees in Iowa.

“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 denied the char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion by Re­id’s of­fice that he is pro-coal, ac­cord­ing to the Hub. He 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

Mean­while, a group of en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists has hired a Wash­ing­ton PR firm, VennSquared Com­mu­nic­a­tions, to cam­paign for Binz as he heads in­to what looks like a tough and testy Sen­ate con­firm­a­tion pro­cess.

On Thursday, the Wash­ing­ton Times re­por­ted on e-mails that re­vealed two former Re­id staffers — Chris Miller, who left the lead­er’s of­fice earli­er this year as his top en­ergy and en­vir­on­ment aide, and Kai An­der­son — also have helped with Binz’s con­firm­a­tion pro­cess.

This isn’t the first time Re­id has wiel­ded his in­flu­ence in a fight over an ob­scure en­ergy agency. He was in­stru­ment­al in hav­ing Gregory Jaczko, a former Re­id aide, ap­poin­ted chair­man of the Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion, a post Jaczko left last year after a con­tro­versy over his man­age­ment style.

Cor­al Dav­en­port con­trib­uted

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