Right now, nearly every part of the world is facing deadly heat, droughts, floods, wildfires, dangerous air quality, or some combination of the above. While Congress painstakingly deliberates over the two-track process for an infrastructure package, we’ve seen several strong climate provisions stripped from what we are repeatedly told is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet the moment. Evidently, Biden’s chief negotiator Steve Ricchetti cares less about the planet his children will inherit than he does about making nice with Republicans in 2021.
President Biden himself is also failing to meet the moment. This failure goes beyond his glamorizing of bipartisanship at the expense of climate. He is simply not using his full power as the head of the executive branch when it comes to preventing the planet from burning. Why should anyone believe the common refrain that the president is doing his best to implement good policy but politics is just too tricky, when he is leaving crucial appointments unfilled and potential executive orders unsigned?
The clearest such example is the open seat at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of oil, gas, and electricity. FERC is traditionally known—or unknown—as a dull, cobweb-filled corner of the federal government, due to its rather technical responsibilities: reviewing proposals to build gas terminals and pipelines, allowing mergers and acquisitions of electric companies, and monitoring energy markets.
But don’t judge an agency by its caricature. FERC authorities are at the center of some of the most desperately needed changes to America’s meager climate strategy.
For example, FERC has a direct mandate to perform climate and environmental justice impact reviews for liquified natural gas terminals and gas pipelines, many of which infringe on native treaty rights. That means that a FERC commissioner dedicated to indigenous sovereignty could have a mighty impact on fossil fuel expansion or phase-out. The commission’s role in reviewing certain mergers and acquisitions of electricity companies means it has the direct ability to protect consumers from monopoly-driven rate hikes or unfair utility practices. It also has formal power to allow or prevent municipalization efforts, through a process requiring approval when municipalities request a transfer of jurisdictional assets. Local public ownership of utilities tends to lower consumer costs and can potentially allow a more rapid transition to renewable energy.
The infrastructure bill moving through Congress could add to FERC’s authorities. It seems to confirm that FERC has authority to approve high-priority regional transmission projects opposed by states.
Any commissioner fit for a 21st century FERC should not enable fossil fuel expansion, and any movement actors who understand how climate is a tribal justice issue should be pressing Biden for action on FERC immediately.
The leadership of FERC consists of five commissioners appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, each serving five-year terms. FERC currently has a 3-2 Republican majority (all five were nominated by former President Trump, but presidents can nominate no more than three from their own party). But that could have changed as of June 30, when Republican Neil Chatterjee’s term expired.
And yet, a full five weeks after this opportunity opened up, Biden has still not named a replacement to Chatterjee’s seat. Chatterjee said last month that FERC’s July open meeting would “likely” be his last but, until there’s a replacement, he can stay in place and continue as a voting member of the commission. This means the commission is lingering with a Republican majority for longer than is legally necessary. For a president who campaigned on fighting climate change and rejecting Trumpism, that’s pretty embarrassing, considering how simple it would be to name a new candidate. There is no shortage of well-educated, well-intentioned experts who could fill the seat. And there’s no reason the Biden administration couldn’t have seen this vacancy coming and vetted and chosen a nominee prior to the seat opening up.
Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL) is doing his best to move FERC’s work up the administration’s priority list. He recently dubbed this summer #HotFERCSummer, making the case for why FERC is actually exciting and important. It’s an excellent, entertaining strategy. But one congressperson is not enough, and it shouldn’t require a Congressional public relations campaign in the first place. Biden’s failure to appoint a new commissioner in a timely fashion points to the fact that he does not realize—or else, is actively choosing not to take advantage of—the extent of his power as president to tackle the climate crisis.
The rumors about potential FERC nominees do not instill a great deal of confidence. Willie Phillips, the current chair of the D.C. Public Service Commission, approved the acquisition of Pepco by energy giant Exelon, as well as Pepco’s $108 million rate hike (paid for by local residents). Both projects moved forward against the will of nearly everyone in the district. Phillips also spent years working for corporate law firms that represent oil and gas interests and counseling the electric utility industry on corporate and regulatory matters.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) lawyer Tom Dalzell is no better. Though his union ties look promising on paper, in reality he has sided with industry utilities over the public interest time and again, all the while failing to prioritize climate action. Dalzell won an award for his undying loyalty to the corrupt electric company PG&E after he helped them fight municipalization (local public utility ownership) efforts. He also assisted in bringing the company out of bankruptcy (which occurred after PG&E was found responsible for dozens of deadly forest fires) and argued against financial penalties levied after a deadly gas line explosion. And he opposed a 2017 California bill that would have required the state to stop using fossil fuels for electricity by 2045, saying he and the IBEW Local 1245 had a “parochial self-interest in this.”
Maria Robinson, while decidedly more independent from utility companies than Phillips or Dalzell, includes gas in her definition of advanced energy sources for a clean energy future. Anything less than a complete and immediate end to all fossil fuel projects is unacceptable. The climate disaster is already here, and gas, even as a “bridge fuel,” is both harmful and unnecessary.
It is critical that the next FERC commissioner lead with climate and consumer justice, as well as respect for treaty rights, in mind. The Biden administration should both listen to recommendations from environmental justice communities, such as this newly introduced slate endorsed by 466 groups, and use their own capacity to seek out strong candidates. This nominee will be a tie-breaker between two generally environmentally-minded Democrats and two generally fossil fuel-loving Republican commissioners. And while FERC’s jurisdiction is undoubtedly influenced by legislation, the five commissioners on their own have a great deal of discretion.
For example, FERC launched a rule-making process last month to explore the expansion of high-voltage transmission infrastructure, which is crucial for connecting renewable energy sources like solar and wind to consumers across the country. The end result of the rule-making—which could defer to utility companies who generally oppose national transmission infrastructure in favor of profit, or could boldly (and legally) usher in the era of zero-carbon electricity—will undoubtedly be determined largely by the makeup of the five commissioners. Until now, FERC has largely rubber-stamped utility and pipeline companies’ dreams, but it absolutely does not have to continue that trend.
President Biden is surely a busy man, and there are any number of arguments he could make about the difficulties of today’s political climate. But there is no excuse for letting FERC simmer without Democratic control one day longer than necessary—not when it has such great potential to take climate action.