Coloradan Ron Binz is not suited to be FERC chairman
By Matt Soper
Tuesday’s Senate confirmation hearing on Colorado’s Ron Binz to be President Barack Obama’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman saw electromagnetic shock-waves blast from Alaska to West Virginia.
Senate committee hearings can be dry, dull and draining — perfect events for playing online poker or doodling.
Tuesday’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., was far from boring.
One lobbyist in line commented, “This is the first FERC appointee in my 30-year career which has drawn a crowd.” In fact, there were twice as many spectators as seats. A vast overflow spilled into the halls resembling a queue for a rock concert, rather than a committee meeting.
Energy transmitted over FERC-regulated pipes and wires is worth nearly $400 billion per year. Grand Junction’s Greg Walcher, in his book, “Smoking them out: The theft of the environment and how to take it back,” states that the transmission of power is the most difficult issue facing the environment today.
FERC regulates the transmission and wholesale sales of electricity in interstate commerce, along with licensing of electric production, pipelines and liquid natural gas terminals. FERC does not regulate the source, merely the transmission of electricity on the grid.
So, what is so controversial about Obama’s FERC appointee from Colorado?
✔ The Colorado Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act
✔ The “30 percent by 2020” Colorado mandate
✔ Allegations of Binz misleading or lying to the Energy Committee’s ranking member
✔ Binz’s statement that natural gas would be a “dead end” by 2035.
Binz, the former chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission under Gov. Bill Ritter, co-authored Colorado’s controversial, $1.3 billion Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act of 2010, which pitted Colorado coal producers against the natural gas industry.
The act requires Xcel Energy to retire or retrofit 900 megawatts of Front Range coal-fired power plants into facilities fueled by natural gas or other energy sources.
The act received broad bipartisan support. Former Senate Minority Leader Sen. Josh Penry, then of Grand Junction, co-sponsored the legislation. Subsequently, Penry was criticized for accepting employment with an energy consulting firm.
The “30 percent by 2020” mandate was originally co-authored by Binz in 2007. It required Colorado’s energy providers to have 20 percent of their portfolios coming from renewables by 2020. The law was amended in 2010 to increase renewables to 30 percent.
Locally, state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Aspen, who co-sponsored the 2020 mandate and represents a district with natural gas wells and coal mines, was criticized for destroying hundreds of western Colorado jobs.
The third controversy stems from the fact Binz told Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska he had not engaged the assistance of lobbyists to secure his nomination. However, open records of White House emails revealed Binz’s nomination was being coordinated by FERC staff, a PR firm and consultants.
The defense: Binz claims he did not pay for or ask for these services.
Finally, in a statement several years ago, Binz described natural gas as being a “dead end” by 2035 without carbon capture and sequestration. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming directly asked Binz about this quote, to which he replied, “I believe the technology will be perfected by 2035.”
The “dead end” quote and beliefs about carbon capture and sequestration are likely to lump senators from coal and natural gas-producing states in the same camp, opposing Binz.
The Energy Committee has 22 members: 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans. All committee members vote. A tie vote ends the nomination. Simple majority sends the nomination to the full Senate for consideration.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat is from a coal-mining state and has threatened to vote “nay.” If Manchin joins the Republicans, then the Binz nomination will fail.
Indications are that Obama suffered significant loss of political prestige from his venture into war mongering with Syria. Last week three Democrats opposed Larry Summers to be chairman of the Federal Reserve and Summers withdrew his name from consideration. And now, one Democrat — Manchin — is holding up the Binz nomination.
To understand the complexities of the controversy, one must understand the dynamics of traditional-versus-renewable energy producing states; power providers versus consuming states; and rich versus poor states.
Americans desire affordable power. However, the energy source is not always conveniently located to power plants, which are usually a long way from cities and our homes.
FERC is important because it regulates the transmission of electricity through power lines or gas through pipelines.
Binz’s history here in Colorado is one of picking winners and losers in the energy sector. FERC needs a chairman who is not gambling and playing politics at the expense of consumers who are paying higher electric rates year after year.
Matt Soper is a resident of Delta County and an alumnus of Colorado Mesa University. He holds law degrees from the University of Edinburgh and the University of New Hampshire.