Coal booster to join energy regulator, dealing setback to green movement

WASHINGTON — Earth Day is usually an occasion for politicians to extoll natural wonders and our efforts to preserve them. For Bernard L. McNamee, who today becoming one of the nation’s top energy regulators, it was an opportunity to praise oil and coal.

“This Earth Day, let’s accept the critical role that fossil fuel plays in energy needs,” read the headline of his op-ed published in The Hill. McNamee argued that fossil fuels “have dramatically improved the human condition” while suggesting that “doom-and-gloom prophecies” were exaggerated, as were projections about renewable energy’s growth.

A veteran conservative activist, McNamee was a high-ranking deputy in the Department of Energy when, in October, President Trump nominated him to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the nation’s top arbiter of matters related to the transmission and sale of energy. It is the FERC’s responsibility, for example, to either approve or reject projects like the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. The five-commissioner agency—generally referred to as “ferk”—also conducts oversight of energy markets, thus exerting indirect influence on the rates consumers pay.

McNamee’s nomination was vigorously opposed by critics who saw him as yet another oil-and-gas industry helpmate in the Trump administration.

But the nomination moved forward on Wednesday, after the Senate narrowly voted to end debate and proceed to a floor vote. McNamee was confirmed by the full chamber on Thursday, in what a Democratic aide predicted ahead of time would be “the narrowest of margins.” The margin in both cases was 50 to 49.

That margin was narrowed on Wednesday after Joe Manchin, D-W.V.., indicated that he would vote against McNamee. Manchin sometimes caucuses with Republicans, especially when his state’s economic prospects—12 percent of the nation’s coal comes from West Virginia—are in play. Manchin said he changed his mind after viewing a video of an event at which McNamee praised coal in terms similar to those of his Hill op-ed. “Fossil fuels are not something dirty, something we have to move and get away from,” McNamee says in the recording, which was disseminated widely by his critics.

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Coal mining in West Virginia and Appalachia
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Coal mining in West Virginia and Appalachia
The rocky landscape shows some of the last sections to be mined for coal at the Hobet site in Boone County, West Virginia, U.S. May 12, 2016. To match Special Report USA-COAL/HOBET REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A Caterpillar Inc. front loader scoops coal from a mound at the Arch Coal Inc. Sentinel Prep Plant in Philippi, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. Arch, the St. Louis-based holder of the second-largest reserve of coal in the U.S., filed for creditor protection Monday, with an agreement to erase $4.5 billion in debt. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal waits to be among the last shipments to be loaded on train cars to depart the Hobet mine in Boone County, West Virginia, U.S. May 12, 2016. Picture taken May 12, 2016. To match Special Report USA-COAL/HOBET REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Ice patches sit on a mound of coal at the Arch Coal Inc. Sentinel Prep Plant in Philippi, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. Arch, the St. Louis-based holder of the second-largest reserve of coal in the U.S., filed for creditor protection Monday, with an agreement to erase $4.5 billion in debt. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal spills out from a tower into a large pile at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Radio channel signs are posted beside a large mound of coal at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A mound of coal sits outside an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Views of a radically altered natural environment in southern West Virginia due to extensive mountain top removal coal mining and logging. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Views of a radically altered natural environment in southern West Virginia due to extensive mountain top removal coal mining and logging. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
WISE COUNTY, VA - APRIL 16: A & G Coal Corporation surface mining operations continue in the Appalachian Mountains on April 16, 2012 in Wise County, Virginia. Critics refer to this type of mining as 'mountaintop removal mining' which has destroyed 500 mountain peaks and at least 1,200 miles of streams while leading to increased flooding. The Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains on Earth. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
WISE COUNTY, VA - APRIL 16: A & G Coal Corporation surface mining operations are seen in the Appalachian Mountains on April 16, 2012 in Wise County, Virginia. Critics refer to this type of mining as 'mountaintop removal mining' which has destroyed 500 mountain peaks and at least 1,200 miles of streams while leading to increased flooding. The Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains on Earth. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 16 : West Virginia Patriot mining operations at the Guston strip mine just outside of Starcity West Virginia on August 16, 2010. (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 16 : West Virginia Patriot mining operations at the Guston strip mine just outside of Starcity West Virginia on August 16, 2010. Seen here is an example of land that has been reclamed and land that is still being mined. (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call via Getty Images)
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McNamee’s remarks were made at a meeting for lawmakers held by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank where McNamee spent several months in early 2018 on an energy initiative called Life, Powered. The institute, which is averse to regulation, is heavily funded by corporate concerns. It has also received money from the billionaire libertarian activists Charles and David Koch.

Both before and after his brief stint at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, McNamee worked at the Department of Energy, which is headed by former Texas governor Rick Perry. Currently the director of the department’s policy office, McNamee is believed to have been responsible for a proposed Department of Energy bailout of coal and nuclear plants. That plan was ultimately rejected by the FERC.

Sam Gomberg, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Yahoo News that McNamee was a “blatant ideologue” who cannot be trusted to be “neutral arbiter of the facts.” Gomberg worries that when the Energy Department returns to the FERC with another version of its coal and nuclear plant bailout, as it is expected to do in coming months, McNamee will likely use his vote, and his influence, to persuade commissioners to vote in favor of the plan.

Ari Peskoe, Director of the Electricity Law Initiative at the Harvard Law School, told Yahoo News that McNamee should be “disqualified” from handling matters related to this past work with the Department of Energy. McNamee has made no indication that he would make such a recusal.

He did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News.

If McNamee joins the FERC, he will have an ideological ally in the committee’s current chairman, Neil Chatterjee. A former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Chatterjee was a critic of the Clean Power Plan, which was proposed by President Barack Obama but never put into action.

Trump administration positions having to do with energy and the environment are almost entirely dominated in their upper ranks by proponents of fossil fuels who have denied scientific conclusions about human-caused climate change. The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew P. Wheeler, is a former coal lobbyist, while Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has offered millions of acres of public land to energy prospectors.

Despite that, it is not clear just how much McNamee or any of his like-minded Trump administration peers can do to boost the prospects for fossil fuels, coal in particular. According to an annual report on coal by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, consumption of coal decreased by 1.9 percent in 2017, even as coal production increased by 6.4 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are only 52,000 coal miners at work across the country today, a drop of 25,000 thousand jobs in the last decade.

Gomberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that any favoritism McNamee shows to fossil fuels is likely to hurt the burgeoning wind-power industry in Midwestern states like Kansas and Iowa. As his colleague Rob Cowin has pointed out, wind power generates more than a third of the electricity in the two Midwestern states, in addition to providing thousands of jobs.

Nonetheless, on Thursday, all four senators from Iowa and Kansas voted for McNamee.

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