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Senate Panel Advances Energy and Interior Nominees

Members wonder where the other nominees are

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said it was crucial that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission be restored to full membership. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said it was crucial that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission be restored to full membership. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced four energy-related nominees on Tuesday as lawmakers grow increasingly impatient with President Donald Trump’s slow pace of filling key administration positions.

The panel voted 14-9, mostly along party lines, to advance the nomination of longtime energy lobbyist David Bernhardt, Trump’s pick for deputy Interior secretary. Bernhardt, also a former congressional staffer and attorney, has challenged the agency in courts on behalf of clients that critics fear would benefit from his appointment.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat who often sides with Republicans on energy and environment issues, voted for Bernhardt.

Bernhardt leads the natural resources department at Washington law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP. According to Senate lobbying records, he was a registered lobbyist until he delisted on Nov. 18. He subsequently led Trump’s Interior Department transition efforts.

While he has been praised by Republicans as qualified, including by Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, critics focused on his potential conflicts.

The committee’s top Democrat, Maria Cantwell of Washington, voted against Bernhardt, saying he would “bring a great deal of baggage” to the agency and that nominees “do not change their views or outlooks when they pass through that revolving door.”

In a May 1 letter to the Interior Ethics Office, Bernhardt said he would withdraw from his law firm “and all related entities” if confirmed for the Cabinet position. He also said that he will for one year after that withdrawal “not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties in which I know the firm is a party or represents a party,” or any case where he has a direct financial interest — unless given a waiver.

Two nominees for the understaffed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Robert Powelson, a Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission member, and Neil Chatterjee, the go-to energy adviser for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also were advanced. The panel voted 20-3 on both.

“At more than four months and counting, it is also crucial that we act swiftly to restore a working quorum at FERC,” Murkowski said during her opening remarks.

Cantwell, who voted for both FERC nominees, said she believed that both had understood the “important role” that FERC plays in creating a fair energy market.

Three of five seats on the commission that oversees energy infrastructure and electricity markets are vacant. A fourth is to be vacated after June, leaving the five-member commission short of the quorum it needs to make important decisions.

The two sitting commissioners, Cheryl LaFleur, who is acting chairwoman, and Colette Honorable are Democrats appointed by President Barack Obama. Honorable’s term on the commission ends in June and she has said she won’t seek another.

FERC will lack a quorum until at least one nominee can be confirmed by the Senate. Honorable could stay in her seat for some months until the Senate confirms a replacement.

Chatterjee has led McConnell’s energy initiatives since 2010. He played critical roles as the Senate passed Congressional Review Act resolutions in recent weeks to nullify EPA carbon regulations for new and existing power plants, and has spearheaded the energy deregulation push in the chamber this Congress.

Powelson has served as a Pennsylvania PUC commissioner since 2008. He oversaw the regulatory changes driven by the fracking boom in the state’s Marcellus Shale formation. Powelson also currently serves as the president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. If approved, Powelson’s term would run through mid-2020 and Chatterjee’s term would end on June 30, 2021.

FERC traditionally operates with two commissioners from each party and a chairman selected by the president. Both of Trump’s nominees are Republicans, and he did not designate either as chairman, leaving another seat for him to fill with a Republican who could take that post.

Trump has not yet named anyone to fill the third vacant position on the commission.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee also voted 17- 6 to advance the nomination of Trump’s pick for deputy Energy Department secretary, Dan Brouillette.

Cantwell voted for him, saying he had assured her of his commitment to securing the country’s energy infrastructure from cyber attacks.

Before his nomination, Brouillette was vice president and head of public policy for insurance and financial services provider USAA. His previous energy experience includes a stop as chief of staff for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as serving as DOE assistant secretary for Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs from 2001 to 2003.

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