Coal booster joins energy regulator, dealing setback to green movement

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent
Bernard McNamee speaks at his Senate nomination hearing on Nov. 15. (Screengrab via U.S. Senate video)

WASHINGTON — Earth Day is usually an occasion for politicians to extol natural wonders and our efforts to preserve them. For Bernard L. McNamee, who today became one of the nation’s top energy regulators, it was an opportunity to praise oil and coal.

“This Earth Day, let’s accept the critical role that fossil fuel plays in energy needs,” read the headline of his op-ed published in The Hill in April. McNamee argued that fossil fuels “have dramatically improved the human condition” while suggesting that “doom-and-gloom prophecies” were exaggerated, as were projections about renewable energy’s growth.

A veteran conservative activist, McNamee was a high-ranking deputy in the Department of Energy when in October President Trump nominated him to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the nation’s top arbiter of matters related to the transmission and sale of energy. It is the FERC’s responsibility, for example, to either approve or reject projects like the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. The five-commissioner agency — generally referred to as “ferk” — also conducts oversight of energy markets, thus exerting indirect influence on the rates consumers pay.

McNamee’s nomination was vigorously opposed by critics who saw him as yet another oil-and-gas industry helpmate in the Trump administration.

But the nomination moved forward on Wednesday, after the Senate narrowly voted to end debate and proceed to a floor vote. McNamee was confirmed by the full chamber on Thursday, in what a Democratic aide predicted ahead of time would be “the narrowest of margins.” The margin in both cases was 50 to 49.

That margin was narrowed on Wednesday after Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., indicated that he would vote against McNamee. Manchin sometimes caucuses with Republicans, especially when his state’s economic prospects — 12 percent of the nation’s coal comes from West Virginia — are in play. Manchin said he changed his mind after viewing a video of an event at which McNamee praised coal in terms similar to those of his Hill op-ed. “Fossil fuels are not something dirty, something we have to move and get away from,” McNamee says in the recording, which was disseminated widely by his critics.

McNamee’s remarks were made at a meeting for lawmakers held by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank where McNamee spent several months in early 2018 on an energy initiative called Life: Powered. The institute, which is averse to regulation, is heavily funded by corporate concerns. It has also received money from the billionaire libertarian activists Charles and David Koch.

Both before and after his brief stint at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, McNamee worked at the Department of Energy, which is headed by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Currently the director of the department’s policy office, McNamee is believed to have been responsible for a proposed Department of Energy bailout of coal and nuclear plants. That plan was ultimately rejected by the FERC.

Sam Gomberg, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Yahoo News that McNamee is a “blatant ideologue” who cannot be trusted to be a “neutral arbiter of the facts.” Gomberg worries that when the Energy Department returns to the FERC with another version of its coal and nuclear plant bailout, as it is expected to do in coming months, McNamee will likely use his vote, and his influence, to persuade commissioners to vote in favor of the plan.

Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School, told Yahoo News that McNamee should be “disqualified” from handling matters related to this past work with the Department of Energy. McNamee has made no indication that he would make such a recusal.

He did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News.

At the FERC, McNamee will have an ideological ally in the committee’s current chairman, Neil Chatterjee. A former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Chatterjee was a critic of the Clean Power Plan, which was proposed by President Barack Obama but never put into action.

New York protesters urge Sen. Chuck Schumer to oppose Bernard McNamee for FERC commissioner (and Joe Manchin as ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee). (Photo: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Trump administration positions having to do with energy and the environment are almost entirely dominated in their upper ranks by proponents of fossil fuels who have denied scientific conclusions about human-caused climate change. The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal lobbyist, while Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has offered millions of acres of public land to energy prospectors.

Despite that, it is not clear just how much McNamee or any of his like-minded Trump administration peers can do to boost the prospects for fossil fuels, coal in particular. According to an annual report on coal by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, consumption of coal decreased by 1.9 percent in 2017, even as coal production increased by 6.4 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are only 52,000 coal miners at work across the country today, a drop of 25,000 jobs in the last decade.

Gomberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that any favoritism McNamee shows to fossil fuels is likely to hurt the burgeoning wind-power industry in Midwest states like Kansas and Iowa. As his colleague Rob Cowin has pointed out, wind power generates more than a third of the electricity in the two states, in addition to providing thousands of jobs.

Nonetheless, on Thursday, all four senators from Iowa and Kansas voted for McNamee.

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