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Guest Editorial: FERC vacancies stalling major energy projects
It must be pretty lonely being Cheryl LaFleur, the acting chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The panel normally has five members but hasn't had the minimum three commissioners required to have a quorum since February. With the departure of another commissioner at the end of June, LaFleur has been the sole member of a panel that has broad authority over energy issues but can't act because of empty seats.
How ridiculous is that? Congress and President Donald Trump need to end this travesty.
This unprecedented lack of a quorum would be humorous except that it has become an expensive gridlock for the energy industry, which claims $50 billion of shovel-ready projects now are in limbo. Without a quorum, the commission cannot make regulatory rulings on, for example, new gas pipeline projects, potentially stalling the kind of infrastructure investment Trump has touted.
Some legal experts say commission inaction could put certain projects on fast-tracks. By law, qualifying proposals are automatically given a green light if the commission doesn't act within certain time frames. That means once a quorum is restored, the burden of proof in subsequent legal challenges would shift from the filing party to the challenging party and the commission.
This hardly seems a good way to govern.
The mess began when two commissioners resigned in the closing months of the Obama administration, leaving the panel with the bare minimum for a quorum. Then Trump made matters worse, taking the chairmanship from Norman Bay, an Obama appointee who previously headed the commission's crack down on energy market manipulation, and giving it temporarily to LaFleur, a Democrat who some Republicans considered friendlier to the energy industry.
Bay abruptly resigned from the commission, denying it a quorum. And LaFleur became the lone commissioner when Colette Honorable, fellow Democrat and former Arkansas Public Service Commission regulator, stepped down after her term expired June 30.
Belatedly, Trump has nominated three replacements, all of whom are tied up in various stages of the Senate confirmation process, which even in the best of times is tortuously slow. Two of the nominees, which Trump didn't pick until May, face stiff opposition from Democrats and activist groups who accuse them of being rubber stamps for energy interests and the White House. Trump nominated a third person late last month but has not yet selected a fourth nominee to complete the panel.
When possible, agency staffers have picked up the workload, which isn't the same as having a governing body shape policy and make binding decisions.
The energy industry has been openly critical of how long it has taken Trump to put forward nominees, and rightly so. Businesses deserve timely reviews and environmentalists deserve an opportunity to voice their views about the agency's direction. And they deserve it now.
In the words of Ethan Bellamy, a Denver-based managing director at investment firm Robert W. Baird & Co. in a May interview with Bloomberg.com:
"The lack of a quorum at FERC is an embarrassing debacle for the Trump administration. The leadership vacuum at FERC is holding up shovel-ready, privately funded infrastructure spending. We need those positions filled yesterday."
Dallas Morning News, July 11, 2017