The Senate narrowly confirmed President Donald Trump’s pick for the nation’s top energy regulator, with Democrats voting en bloc against the nominee over concerns that he would use his position to promote fossil-fuel interests.
Bernard McNamee, a Republican Energy Department staffer who played a role in Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s ill-fated plan to subsidize coal and nuclear plants, came under fresh fire when a video surfaced in which he equated the environmental movement with tyranny and criticized renewable energy.
Those comments were enough to dissuade even coal-state Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia from supporting him. Still, the Senate approved his nomination to join the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a 50-49 vote.
“Throughout his career, Mr. McNamee has been manifestly biased in favor of the fossil fuel industry, and biased against renewable energy sources, so much so that one cannot believe he would be a fair arbiter on these issues,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said during a procedural vote Wednesday.
Other Senate Democrats raised concerns about McNamee’s role in Perry’s coal bail-out effort, which was ultimately rejected by the energy commission early this year. The independent panel, which is charged with overseeing the U.S. electric grid, is supposed to be fuel-neutral.
“This is not a question of the fox guarding the henhouse,” Senator Ron Wyden said Wednesday. “This is a question of putting a fox inside the henhouse.”
McNamee has responded to those concerns by pledging to be an “independent arbiter” who will arrive at decisions based on the law and facts. He also promised to consult with the agency’s ethics official.
Still, critics have called on McNamee to recuse himself from any commission matters in which there might be a conflict of interest. Harvard University’s Electricity Law Initiative plans to file a brief with the energy regulator recommending that McNamee be disqualified from any matters concerning rates for “fuel secure” generators.
“FERC Commissioners must be impartial adjudicators, but as a matter of law, Mr. McNamee is incapable of meeting that standard with regard to matters that he worked on while serving as an attorney at the Department of Energy,” Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative, said in a statement.
At Trump’s direction, Energy Department officials have proposed a new plan to extend the life of money-losing power plants, which they argue are essential to national security. Under the strategy outlined in a May agency memo, the president would use sweeping authority under the 68-year-old Defense Production Act to force grid operators to buy electricity from specific power plants at risk of closing. Perry in September said that the agency was awaiting a final decision.
Depending on how the plan is structured, it may or may not come before the energy commission. Still, the degree of controversy over the proposal has drawn more attention than usual to the political leanings of the agency’s members.