Utility veteran takes FERC reins again

Cheryl LaFleur is assuming the reins at FERC again - at least until President Trump can find a Republican to replace her.

Poor Cheryl LeFleur.

As she prepares to become acting commissioner for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the second time since 2013, LaFleur can thank President Donald J. Trump for thrusting her into the spotlight at a pivotal time for energy policy in this country, serving an administration seemingly fixated on reviving the U.S. fossil-fuel markets by any means necessary.

This could put LaFleur in the crosshairs of both her Democratic critics, who believe her 21-year career at National Grid makes her too utility-friendly, and her Republican critics who believe she’s not committed enough to fossil fuels because she is a Democrat.

As pv magazine reported on Wednesday, the incoming Trump administration has abandoned all pretense of supporting renewable energy officially, as its America First Energy Plan has no mentions of solar or any other renewable energy source, focusing solely on shale oil, traditional oil and natural gas as domestic energy resources that must be exploited.

In addition, Trump signed two executive orders this week moving the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline projects forward, both of which could come to FERC while LaFleur is chair.

LaFleur is no stranger to the acting commissioner role. First appointed to FERC in 2010 by President Barack Obama, she served as acting chair from November 2013 to July 2014 and as Chairman from July 2014 until April 2015.

During her last stint in the chairperson’s chair, LaFleur forced a “reliability safety valve” provision into President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, that would allow coal-burning power plants to operate if utilities could show that closing the plants would cause significant electricity-production losses. The provision opened a semi-truck-sized loophole in the centerpiece of Obama’s Climate Change agenda.

LaFleur’s spotty record in supporting solar and other renewable energy may not matter all that much in the long run, however. FERC usually has five commissioners – two Democrats, two Republicans and the chairperson, who usually shares the political party of the president at the time.

At present, FERC only has two commissioners – both Democrats – after its two Republican members resigned in the past year and the third Democrat and former chair, Norman Bay, resigned shortly after the announcement of LaFleur had been made.

FERC rules require a three-commissioner quorum to issue any rulings, so until the three Republican slots are filled, FERC will be toothless. Once those appointments are made, tradition would hold that LaFleur would yield the chair to a Republican.

Insiders suggest LaFleur’s permanent successor could be Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s long-time energy aide, Neil Chatterjee.