WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has tapped an aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a veteran Pennsylvania official to serve on the vacancy-plagued Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
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Only two commissioners currently serve on the five-member panel, leaving it without a quorum and unable to make decisions on interstate pipelines and other projects worth billions of dollars. One of the two remaining commissioners has said she will step down later this year, providing another opening for Trump.
The White House announced late Monday that Trump plans to nominate Neil Chatterjee, McConnell's longtime energy adviser, and Robert Powelson, a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, to the energy panel. Both are Republicans. The nominations require Senate approval.
The energy agency has been without a quorum since early February, and lawmakers from both parties have expressed alarm at the prolonged vacancies.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., applauded the announcement and urged the Senate to move quickly to approve the nominations.
"These two highly qualified candidates will provide the needed quorum at the agency and ensure Republican leadership so that FERC can issue final orders dealing with natural gas pipeline projects, electricity rate plans and approve other energy infrastructure projects in a timely manner," Inhofe said in a statement.
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Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the senior Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee, said she was concerned that Trump has not announced a replacement for Colette Honorable, a Democrat who has said she won't seek a new term when her current term expires in June.
By tradition, presidents often nominate commissioners from both parties at the same time so they can be voted on together.
"Someone needs to tell the White House we (Democrats) are part of the equation when it comes to these nominees," Cantwell said.
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a power-industry group, said it was essential that FERC regain its quorum, citing Trump's expressed goals to build infrastructure and stimulate energy production.
Segal called Chatterjee smart and open-minded and said he "keeps a friendly attitude even when matters can be contentious."
Powelson, a seasoned regulator from a state that has seen a huge increase in natural gas production, also serves as president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, giving him a "national regulatory vantage point that will be useful" in his new role, Segal said.
"All in all, two good picks — and just in time," Segal said.
Democrat Cheryl LaFleur is the commission's acting chairwoman, but Trump is widely expected to name a Republican to replace her. LaFleur would still serve on the commission.
Honorable has said she is willing to stay on the commission after her term expires June 30, but has not indicated when she will depart.