One of the Most Important Agencies Overseeing U.S. Energy Faces Deadlock
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) plays a critical role in accelerating the clean energy transition and U.S. climate goals. The decisions of this bipartisan agency drive investment, shape planning, and will determine how quickly the U.S. transitions to clean energy – or how much longer we rely on burning fossil fuels. Now a vacant Democratic seat on the five-member commission increases the chances that it may deadlock and fail to make important decisions. Here’s why President Biden must nominate a new commissioner to FERC immediately.
Who oversees the U.S. energy system?
While many decisions about energy happen at the local and state level, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has broad authority over the interstate transmission of electricity as well as the electricity and gas sectors. It is a little-known agency overseen by five commissioners that can play an enormous role in accelerating the clean energy transition. But it also has the power to make decisions that lock us into a dirty energy future, like approving gas pipelines.
The electric grid in the United States was designed for burning fossil fuels. We must transform our energy system now to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, and FERC has a key role in that transformation.
Who is in charge at FERC?
FERC is an independent government agency led by five commissioners, each appointed by the president. No more than three members may be from the same political party. Today, one seat on the commission is vacant, which increases the chances that the four remaining commissioners may deadlock on or fail to make important decisions.
In late 2022, Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., used his position as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to prevent former FERC Chairman Richard Glick from serving another term, after Chairman Glick advanced policies to consider climate and environmental justice impacts in FERC decisions. Now the commissioners are split 2-to-2, Republican and Democrat. This could lead to deadlock, and in some specific cases FERC could be legally required to adopt a public utility’s proposals if the commissioners’ vote is split.
We must avoid deadlock at FERC as the commission faces a slew of critical decisions in 2023. President Biden must immediately nominate a new FERC commissioner with a strong record on environmental justice and climate change.
What can FERC do to accelerate the clean energy transition?
FERC’s work is essential to accelerating our clean energy transition and meeting U.S. climate and environmental justice commitments. In the coming years, it must:
- Accelerate transmission infrastructure in an equitable way. We need more long-distance, high-voltage power lines to move clean energy into every American home. Construction of new long-distance transmission lines has been stalled in most regions for over a decade and we urgently need policy reform. But ramping up transmission cannot come at the expense of environmental review or public engagement. Earthjustice recently released a roadmap outlining how FERC can accelerate the transmission infrastructure we need to meet U.S. climate goals while preventing harm to impacted communities.
- Implement historic investments in America’s power grid. The Inflation Reduction Act included the largest investment ever in upgrading our energy grid, with plans for new long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines, offshore wind, and advanced transmission and distribution operations. Now FERC faces a slew of critical decisions that will determine whether the U.S. meets its goals and dramatically reduces emissions in this decade.
- Level the playing field for clean energy. FERC has taken steps to ensure that interstate electricity markets value clean energy appropriately and do not let providers subsidize fossil fuels or inflate the cost of renewables. Earthjustice and our partners will continue fighting to remove barriers to clean energy and challenge market manipulation that favors fossil fuels.
- Connect clean energy to the grid faster. Thousands of solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal projects in various stages of development are waiting for approval to connect to the grid. Recently proposed reforms by FERC would reduce the backlog of new projects waiting years to connect to the grid, bringing abundant clean energy to millions of families. Earthjustice is advocating to expedite the connection approval process.
- Reject harmful gas projects. In 2022, FERC proposed a policy that would require a more thorough analysis of the threats gas pipelines pose to communities and the environment. Another proposed policy would finally require the agency to assess greenhouse gas emissions for all the gas projects it reviews. But pressure from the gas industry put these important reforms on hold, and they may not be advanced with a deadlocked commission. Earthjustice is advocating for FERC to finalize and implement these reforms.
What can we do?
Earthjustice fights alongside our partners to reform energy markets, remove blatant barriers to wind and solar, strengthen environmental reviews of gas projects, and ensure that the transmission buildout is done in an equitable way. We represent nonprofit and community-based organizations impacted by FERC’s policies and push FERC to be more responsive to local communities.
But our work will only succeed with a full-strength FERC. Join us in calling on President Biden to immediately nominate a new FERC commissioner with a strong record on climate and environmental justice who can lead our country through this pivotal transition.