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FERC Nominee Faces Tough Questions About Role in Trump Coal Bailout Plan

FERC nominee Bernard McNamee addresses the Senate Energy and Natural Resouces Committee during his confirmation hearing on November 15, 2018.
FERC nominee Bernard McNamee addresses the Senate Energy and Natural Resouces Committee during his confirmation hearing on November 15, 2018.

The Trump administration’s nominee for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission faced tough questions from lawmakers Thursday. It was over whether the longtime energy lawyer could impartially serve at the agency after helping the administration craft its coal and nuclear power plant bailout plan.

Senators grilled Bernard McNamee, who served most-recently as executive director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Policy, over his involvement with the Energy Department's policy to help struggling coal and nuclear power plants.

In one exchange, a fiery Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) pressed McNamee on his ability to be impartial.

“You played a key role in developing the legal underpinnings of a Trump energy bailout that was so flawed every member of the Federal Energy Commission rejected it,” Wyden said. “Now the President wants to put you on the commission that rejected the plan you wrote. This is not like having the fox guard the chicken coop, this is like putting the fox inside the chicken coop.”

McNamee told Wyden and others on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee he could separate his work at both the Energy Department on the coal plan with the independent nature and impartiality required at FERC.

The independent agency regulates the sale and transmission of electricity as well as interstate oil and natural gas pipelines.

"As to the issue, I think ultimately [it] is whether I would be an independent arbiter and be able to look at the facts and the law and make an independent choice," he said. "I have no doubt that I can do that and that it won’t be influenced by politics."

FERC in January ultimately rejected the Energy Department’s bailout policy in a unanimous vote. The administration has continued to work on a plan to prop up struggling utilities.

McNamee said he believed FERC’s role in the country’s energy markets should be resource-neutral.

“I think the primary thing for FERC is to make sure that they’re not picking and choosing what the resources should be, but ensuring that the markets are able function so resources can compete and that the market decides what’s the right resource,” he said.

But despite his even-keeled testimony, some Senators continued to express concern, especially after McNamee refused to commit to recusing himself if another coal bailout plan crossed FERC’s desk. Instead, he said he would seek the advice of the agency’s ethics counsel.

Sen. Angus King, an Independent from Maine, was one lawmaker who seemed to find that reasoning unacceptable.

"I don't understand any argument where you would need to consult any counsel anywhere on earth to understand if you have a conflict of interest when it comes to this issue of the so-called grid resilience or price rule or any version thereof," King said.

McNamee has a long history of working on energy issues, both in the private and public sectors. He worked as an energy policy advisor for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and as a lawyer at a Virginia-based law firm where he represented a variety of energy interests from solar to oil and gas.

This year, McNamee worked at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that advocates for fossil fuels and has ties to the Koch brothers and American Legislative Exchange Council.

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