Trump's FERC nominee to seek counsel if coal bailout plan returns

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to join a key panel of independent energy regulators, who helped roll out a Department of Energy (DOE) directive to bail out aging coal and nuclear plants, told senators on Thursday he did not know if he would recuse himself if the issue reappears before the commission.

Last month Trump nominated Bernard McNamee, currently a lawyer at the DOE, to a vacant seat on the five-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is meant to be a politically independent office.

When he was the DOE’s deputy general counsel last year, McNamee helped to role out a directive from Energy Secretary Rick Perry to subsidize aging coal and nuclear plants for attributes including making the U.S. power grid resilient. The plan was bashed by a mix of natural gas, renewable power, and consumer advocates. FERC ultimately rejected the plan.

McNamee, a Republican, this year wrote an editorial on the virtues of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil. The piece said renewable energy like wind and solar power was important, but questioned whether they could replace other energy resources. Critics say McNamee’s participation in Perry’s directive and his editorial make him biased toward fossil fuels, a claim he rejected.

Asked at a Senate hearing on his nomination whether he would recuse himself if he is confirmed and if the resilience issue comes up again at FERC, McNamee said he was not sure.

“I don’t know if anything is going to be proposed ... so I can’t say what I would or would not do,” McNamee said. “I commit I will talk with ethics counsel to find out if I need to recuse myself.”

McNamee said his “decisions will be based on the law and the facts, not politics.”

“Markets are the best way to allocate resources and set prices and I am committed to continuing FERC’s independence,” he added.

Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, said U.S. law dictates that McNamee should disqualify himself on the issue because he had participated in U.S. government counsel on it with the DOE.

King told McNamee he was “surprised and disappointed that you feel that you have to consult with counsel on something that’s so clear.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a Republican and chair of the Senate energy committee told McNamee that if he is confirmed, she expected him to make sure FERC was not “tipping the scales for any energy source based on a political perspective.”

Reporting by Timothy Gardner