McConnell Aide, Utility Leader Named to Federal Energy Agency

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By Rebecca Kern

Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson, named by the White House to fill vacant seats on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, would bring broad energy expertise to the positions, former colleagues say.

President Donald Trump announced late May 8 his intent to nominate Chatterjee, a long-time energy staffer for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Powelson, the president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and a member of the Pennsylvania Utility Commission, as commissioners to the agency for terms expiring in 2021 and 2020, respectively.

FERC has lacked a quorum since February and currently has two sitting Democratic commissioners— Acting Chairman Cheryl LaFleur and Commissioner Colette Honorable, whose term expires June 30. In addition to Chatterjee and Powelson, Trump can nominate another Republican and a Democrat to bring the agency back to five commissioners.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight over FERC commissioners, said she will work to move the nominees quickly once the nomination is formally sent to the Senate.

“As they come and as we get the paperwork, I want to try to move people,” she told reporters May 9. “The FERC has been without a quorum since early February, and they need the ability to get to work.”

The Sierra Club issued a statement in which it declined to criticize Chatterjee or Powelson, but was critical of FERC overall for being too quick to approve energy projects.

“Regardless of who serves as a FERC commissioner, each must put the health and safety of the American public and our climate before corporate polluters’ profits. That means ending the status quo of rubber-stamping nearly every proposed fossil fuel pipeline and terminal; protecting consumers by ensuring energy rates are just and reasonable; and continuing to enable states’ ability to lead on clean energy,” it said.

The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg L.P. Bloomberg BNA is an affiliate of Bloomberg L.P.

‘Tip of the Spear’

Chatterjee has worked for McConnell as an energy policy adviser since late 2009, and has been integral to multiple pieces of energy legislation and policy, including the provision of the 2015 omnibus spending bill that lifted the 40-year ban on crude oil exports.

Chatterjee was critical to getting the export ban lifted, Christopher Guith, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, told Bloomberg BNA May 9.

“From a staff level, he was the one counting votes and figuring out what was possible, where it was possible, and it ultimately got done, and I’m not sure it could have without Neil,” Guith said.

“He will bring talents that are pretty rare at FERC. That is having a very, very broad-based energy policy background. He’s the tip of the spear at the Senate—everything that is energy, environment and transportation goes through his hands,” Guith said.

Chatterjee’s bluegrass roots go back to Lexington, Ky. He is a graduate of St. Lawrence University in New York and the University of Cincinnati College of Law. After law school, he interned for the House Committee on Ways and Means. He then worked as a legislative assistant from 2004 to 2005 for Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), who was chairman of the House Republican Conference.

From December 2006 to October 2009, Chatterjee was a lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative, representing not-for-profit rural cooperatives. He lobbied on a wide array of energy issues, including the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

“He was effective in that role, like he’s been effective on Capitol Hill and like we expect he’ll be effective in his role, if confirmed, at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” Kirk Johnson, NRECA’s senior vice president of government relations, told Bloomberg BNA May 9.

Chatterjee Respected

Chatterjee is well liked across both sides of the aisle in Congress.

Former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), ex-ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, spoke highly of Chatterjee after the Senate passage of the Water Resources Development Act in 2013.

“There is one person, and that is Neil Chatterjee, and I hope I do not ruin his career by thanking him. He works for Senator McConnell. He helped us greatly just to know the lay of the land. He said: ‘This is where we have problems. This is where we can come together,’” Boxer said in a floor speech in May 2013.

Rebecca Rosen, a former staffer in 2011 on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee who worked with Chatterjee, said, “He’s very well respected, not just on the Republican side.”

She worked closely with him while they were both energy and environment advisers for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign from August through November 2012.

“Neil has that rare combination of skills that sets him apart from the pack—he’s highly substantive on policy, he’s incredibly strategic and he’s amazingly likeable,” Rosen, now vice president of policy and government affairs at Devon Energy Corp., told Bloomberg BNA May 9.

Powelson Brings State Perspective

The second intended FERC nominee is Powelson, who has a long history as a Pennsylvania utility commissioner and is well-liked across the energy and utility sectors.

He was appointed to the Pennsylvania Utility Commission in 2008 by former Gov. Ed Rendell (D). In 2011, Gov. Tom Corbett (R) reappointed Powelson as chairman of the PUC, and he served until May 2015. Then he was reappointed for another five-year term as commissioner in 2014 until 2019.

Powelson also was previously president of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry from 1994 to 2008 in southeastern Pennsylvania.

A Pennsylvania native, Powelson holds a bachelor of administration degree from St. Joseph’s University and a master’s degree in governmental administration with a concentration in public finance from the University of Pennsylvania.

In November 2015, he was appointed as president of the NARUC in November 2015, a not-profit organization that represents state public service commissions who regulate the utilities.

Tony Clark, a former FERC commissioner until September 2016, who served as NARUC president from 2010 to 2011, said he thinks Powelson will bring a broad energy regulatory expertise to FERC.

“There’s no singularly perfect background for a FERC commissioner, but being a state commissioner and active in NARUC is a very good background for sure,” Clark, now a senior adviser at Wilkinson, Barker, Knauer LLP, told Bloomberg BNA May 9.

He said that as NARUC president “you get a broad visibility from across a lot of regions of the country and at least from a regulatory perspective, you understand how different regions of the country work and the different challenges that are faced by the different regions.”

“In terms of issue spotting, he’s well prepared to know what are going to be the pressure points,” he added.

Powelson sent a letter to Trump’s transition team in January highlighting priorities for NARUC, including infrastructure replacement, moving forward with Yucca Mountain, and the importance of ensuring federal regulations do not override state electric and utility policies.

In a February interview with American Gas magazine, Powelson emphasized infrastructure as well as pipeline safety. “In my view, pipeline safety is unequivocally the number-one priority and must also be the number-one priority for the natural gas transmission and distribution industry over the next century,” he said.

One month later, Powelson drew attention when he said in a speech to industry representatives that opponents of pipeline projects are engaged in a “jihad” to prevent gas from getting to new markets. He later said he used “an inappropriate choice of words.”

John Betkoski, vice president of Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, will complete Powelson’s term as NARUC president and then serve his own term, once he is formally installed at NARUC’s November meeting, Regina Davis, NARUC’s director of communications, told Bloomberg BNA May 9.

—With assistance from Brian Dabbs in Washington.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rKern@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

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