President Obama’s Utility Regulation Nominee Draws Ire of Coal Supporters

coal-power-plantRonald J. Binz, President Obama’s pick to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), has run up against stiff opposition from pro-coal members of Congress and various conservative groups.  He is accused of being anti-coal, a matter which is troubling not just to Republican members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where his hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, but also to key Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Mary Landrieu (LA).

As former head of the Colorado Public Utility Commission from 2007-2011, Binz championed a plan which converted six coal-fired power plants to natural gas, thereby reducing the carbon-intensity of the state’s energy production.  It drew the ire of pro-coal groups, including the Colorado Mining Association, and the label of “anti-coal” has stuck.

Ronald Binz, President Obama's nominee to head FERC (Photo courtesy Binz's website)

Ronald Binz, President Obama’s nominee to head FERC (Photo courtesy Binz’s website)

With his recent appointment to the heretofore little known FERC, Binz has become a lightning rod, and his appointment has become a referendum on the Obama administration’s energy policy.  The Wall Street Journal fired the opening salvo, in an extraordinary bit of hyperbole, calling Binz “the most important and radical Obama nominee you’ve never heard of.”  Now, various Koch-brother-funded conservative groups, including the American Energy Alliance and Americans for Prosperity, have sent a letter to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, describing Binz’s nomination as “very troubling.”

Since his time on the Colorado PUC, Binz has become a thought-leader in the realm of utility regulation, issuing a report through the progressive non-profit CERES called “Practicing Risk-Aware Electricity Regulation: What Every State Regulator Needs to Know.” [PDF link]  In the report, Binz advocates against further investment in high risk energy sources.  In a novel twist, however, the report equates high carbon-intensity to high risk, given the future potential for carbon taxes and regulation, thus making coal-fired power plants equally risky to nuclear power plants.  Instead, the report says, regulators would do well to encourage energy efficiency, which is particularly low risk, and to encourage further development of wind and biomass energy, as a hedge against the increased risk of carbon in the future.

Thus the normally quiet realm of utility regulation has become yet another battlefield upon which the carbon wars are being fought.  Is Binz really a radical?  In a world that is slowly realizing that carbon-intense energy is unsustainable his positions hardly seem that way.  Perhaps then, this is simply another way in which the 24-hour news cycle and interest-group-fueled politics is creating a tempest in a teapot.  Either way, Washington is gearing up for yet another fight, and the head of federal utility regulation lies in the balance.