Earlier this month, President Biden announced his intention to nominate Willie Phillips to be the tie-breaking fifth commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Biden did so in spite of nearly 500 groups urging him to nominate a climate and environmental justice champion, which Phillips is definitively not, and in the face of his own promises to fight climate change and restore faith in government. The groups offered Biden several names, all of them independent from fossil fuel–aligned utilities.
Phillips has relevant experience for the role. But his experience is the wrong kind—and not just because he was Jeff Sessions’s press secretary from 2000 to 2002. Phillips has made a career of representing dirty-energy utilities, showing extreme loyalty to Pepco and Washington Gas at the expense of D.C. residents while chairing the District of Columbia’s Public Service Commission (DCPSC). He also has no experience working with tribal governments, which would be part of the job requirement.
FERC’s mandate is enormous and important, and will play an essential role in America’s response to climate change. It reviews proposals (and performs environmental and climate justice impact reviews) for new gas terminals and pipelines, assesses federal mergers and acquisitions of electric companies, allows or prevents municipalization efforts wherein cities or localities take public ownership of utilities, and monitors wholesale energy markets.
At the DCPSC, Phillips has repeatedly failed to advocate for local residents’ access to affordable energy and a livable climate. Perhaps his greatest transgression was voting to approve electricity giant Exelon’s purchase of Pepco. The acquisition by Exelon, the largest electricity parent company in the country by revenue, increased utility monopolization in the Mid-Atlantic and resulted in higher costs for D.C. consumers. It also disincentivized Pepco from greening their electric services, because other Exelon-owned companies rely on fossil energy for their profits—not to mention that Exelon has historically fought to kill wind and solar subsidies in favor of dirty energy.
Phillips voted for the acquisition against the wishes of most D.C. residents and local government officials, refusing even to ask questions of Exelon at some hearings. The case was so politically unpopular that it took three attempts before it was finally approved; Phillips voted in favor each time. The case involved what appears to be significant corruption, including a $25 million donation from Pepco to the city for “naming rights” of the D.C. United soccer stadium, a rate freeze that happened to coincide with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s re-election, and the fact that Bowser’s senior adviser is a former Pepco VP. Phillips didn’t require any concessions from Exelon or Pepco.
Another transgression: Phillips voted this June to approve a $108 million rate hike for Pepco, when so many D.C. residents were unemployed, struggling with bills, and trying to avoid a deadly virus. The rate hike, locked in for three years, exacerbated D.C.’s already egregious energy burdens for Black households, which spend an average of 21 percent of their household income on energy bills, and Hispanic households, which spend 19 percent. For perspective, even the notorious Dominion Energy in South Carolina agreed to pause their rate case due to COVID-19 hardships.
According to D.C.’s Office of the People’s Counsel (OPC), Phillips voted for the hike despite “opposition of every active party in the case—OPC, the Federal Government, the District Government, the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, and the unions—and the opposition of hundreds of community members.”
Phillips gave Pepco everything it asked for despite the fact that the company still uses coal and fossil gas for a majority of its energy power in D.C. Pepco has obstructed the take-up of rooftop solar in D.C., as residents trying to switch to solar face long delays in connecting to the electric grid and seeing credits on their bill. Meanwhile, the commission, rather than advocating for increased solar energy for residents, approved new monthly charges on community solar plants in D.C. this year by classifying the facilities as customers of Pepco. That is, plants across the city generating their own solar power are now paying Pepco for electricity—the resource they generate—thanks to decisions Phillips voted for. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine filed a request for reconsideration on the matter just this week, alleging that the classification and monthly charge is both illegal and disproportionately harms renters and low-income residents.
Of note is the fact that every source who contributed to the knowledge in this story insisted on anonymity due to potential professional repercussions of criticizing Pepco and Willie Phillips.
Pepco is not the only corporation, unfortunately, that Phillips is loyal to. Phillips also voted to approve Canadian utility AltaGas’s acquisition of Washington Gas Light, which the D.C. People’s Counsel (OPC) opposed due to expected rate increases and environmental issues. In a separate case where Washington Gas Light asked for the commission to approve a $35.2 million rate increase, $9.1 million of which would be for an accelerated fossil gas pipeline replacement program, Phillips defended the utility in the face of public opposition that it would raise rates on customers while contributing to climate change. In response to this, Phillips reiterated his commitment to the financial health of utilities instead of climate reality. “No portion of our statute bears more meaning than the other,” he said. “When we have a rate case, when we have a decision to make, we have to balance all of the interests of all of the stakeholders. That includes the utility … If we do [approve the rate case], we’re not implicit in anything. We’re doing our job.”
As much as Phillips’s actions show exactly where his loyalties lie, it seems there is even more evidence he is eager to hide. When the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI) requested records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regarding Phillips’s communication with the Keystone Policy Center Energy Board—where he serves as a board member alongside Exelon, Duke Energy, PG&E, Xcel Energy, and Clean Coal Electricity representatives, to name a few—the request was delayed by four months, then ultimately rejected.
The DCPSC claimed the records were not public because Phillips serves on the board in his personal capacity. It further claimed that, while there were emails sent from Phillips to the board that “happen to be on the agency’s email server[,] [t]hat alone does not make them public records subject to FOIA.” The fact that the DCPSC received in-kind contributions from the Keystone Policy Center for Phillips’s travel and lodging expenses for board events, and the responsiveness of several public utility commissions in other states for similar requests, suggests otherwise.
EPI has since filed additional FOIA requests to view Phillips’s calendar and his communication with Exelon/Pepco and Washington Gas. The requests have been delayed and no responsive records have been returned as of the time of this publishing.
Prior to Phillips’s time in public service (if one chooses to call rubber-stamping utility projects public service), he worked from 2007 to 2010 as an associate at Van Ness Feldman, a law firm whose clientele includes a number of fossil fuel and utility interests. His now-deleted online profile boasted that he “assists clients with issues regarding electric transmission, natural gas project development, and regulatory compliance, and he has worked with a team litigating a power sales contract dispute in state court.” Between 2005 and 2007, Phillips worked for the law firm Balch & Bingham, where he represented Southern Company Services before FERC in a challenge by ratepayers regarding their usage of Southern’s transmission assets. Southern Company is one of the largest investor-owned utilities in the country and emitted the third-highest amount of carbon dioxide in 2019 among all power companies.
Notably absent from his LinkedIn page, Phillips worked as deputy press secretary on the personal staff of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions between 2000 and 2002. Sessions has denied climate change throughout his political career, voting to roll back environmental protections and voting against tax incentives for renewable-energy sources while promoting continuing oil and gas subsidies.
A comprehensive look at Phillips’s career makes those of us who are dependent on a livable climate and affordable, clean energy—which is to say, all of us—rightfully skeptical of this nomination. In combination with an expansion of offshore drilling, the dangerous and illegal continuation of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, and a whole slew of pro–fossil fuel stances from administration officials, President Biden is failing at his most urgent and existential task.
Judging by his past, it seems likely that Phillips is using a FERC commissioner run as a résumé booster to gain a lucrative utility board position. He could very well continue acting as a utility hack who put profits over the lives of all the world’s grandchildren. But he also has the choice to be a FERC commissioner who ushers in an era of peace, breathable air, drinkable water, and lasting hope. He should know he now has national attention, and any attempt to unfairly favor utilities will be met with much greater opposition and will severely threaten his legacy.
Photo: GRAEME SLOAN/SIPA USA VIA AP IMAGES