U.S. energy office gets new chairman as nuclear, coal vote looms

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new chairman was sworn in on Thursday at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission who will lead the agency as it considers a directive from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to subsidize ailing coal and nuclear power plants.

With the swearing in of Kevin McIntyre, a Republican, the FERC panel is now complete with five members. The commission, which did not have enough members to vote on issues until mid-August, will also consider applications for natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas facilities.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry in September proposed that the independent agency issue a rule to bail out certain aging nuclear and coal plants by allowing them to recoup operating costs through regulated pricing.

FERC is supposed to rule on Perry’s so-called notice of proposed rule making on Dec. 11, but faces no severe penalties if it delays a decision.

Perry at first called his plan a directive, but also told a congressional panel in October that he initiated it to spur a “conversation” among regulators and the industry about protecting people from outages during extreme storms.

An assortment of natural gas drillers, consumer groups worried about electricity bills, renewable power groups and grid operators have opposed Perry’s plan. Some industry groups fear it would favor nuclear and coal, and disadvantage natural gas and wind and solar power.

It is not known how McIntyre, who represented energy companies as a lawyer at Jones Day, feels about the proposal. A decision needs a majority of the panel, which has three Republicans and two Democrats, to pass.

Neil Chatterjee, who served as acting chair of FERC for several months, had proposed an interim plan that would likely require regional grid operators to evaluate which power plants should be helped so they could recoup operating costs through regulated pricing.

Todd Snitchler, a director of market development at the American Petroleum Institute, which opposed Perry’s plan, said his organization looked forward to working with FERC to “support a fuel neutral, market-based approach to safe, reliable and affordable power.”

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Bernadette Baum