The US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will soon have a renewed focus on climate change as it reviews requests to approve natural gas infrastructure or overhaul rules for wholesale electricity markets.
After being sworn in on 20 January president-elect Joe Biden is set to promote one of the agency's two Democratic commissioners, Richard Glick or Allison Clements, as the next FERC chairman. Either pick would be the most climate-focused leader ever of the agency, which critics say has historically been a "rubber stamp" for the natural gas sector, with a roughly 99pc approval rate of infrastructure projects over the last 20 years.
The upcoming leadership shift could result in FERC trying for the first time to prepare exhaustive studies to evaluate if approving a gas pipeline or LNG export facility would, on balance, be better or worse for the climate. That would depart from a policy FERC embraced in 2018 where it chose to ignore most of the greenhouse gases tied to a project it was reviewing.
Glick has pushed for a more robust study of greenhouse gas emissions from projects the agency reviews, including whether emissions are "significant" enough that they must be mitigated. During his three years at FERC Glick has dissented from nearly every major natural gas pipeline and LNG approval because of concerns about the agency's climate reviews. He has also pushed the agency to focus on how its decisions affect consumers and landowners.
Clements, who recently joined the agency, has similarly said the agency's legal requirement to set just and reasonable rates should extend to environmental issues. FERC needs to consider the "grave threat of climate change" and how its decisions affect people, communities and habitat, she said this month at the first open meeting of the agency where she was serving as a commissioner.
But an anticipated 3-2 majority of Republican commissioners at FERC through much of 2021 is poised to constrain the ability of the next Democratic chairman to quickly make sweeping changes. FERC might not have a Democratic majority even into 2022, if Republicans control the US Senate and refuse to consider new nominees.
The most likely swing vote for decisions will come from Republican commissioner Neil Chatterjee, who was stripped of his position as chairman of FERC after offering support for factoring state-set carbon prices into power markets. Chatterjee has already embraced the role, after breaking with the new Republican chairman to block an order to force California to revisit its reliance on intermittent renewable energy sources.
FERC's next chairman will also have to confront how to handle Republican-supported orders that have required the PJM Interconnection and other major wholesale electricity markets to curtail their payments to state-subsidized power plants, such as offshore wind facilities and nuclear plants. Glick opposed those orders as a power-grab away from states. The orders are being challenged in federal court by states, environmentalists and power generators.
By Chris Knight