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FERC's revolving door spins off course

“I always love to highlight some of these smaller agencies that are doing Trump’s work in helping to make America Great Again”

– Amanda House, Breitbart radio host, on interview with FERC's Anthony Pugliese

Amanda House at CPAC in 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore

Amanda House speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Interim FERC Chairman Neil Chaterjee’s announcement of Anthony Pugliese as the Commission’s new Chief of Staff in August 2017 flew mostly under the radar. The appointment was reported in outlets such as Energy & Environment News, ThinkProgress, and Kallanish Energy.

The lack of intrigue may come from the announcement itself, which plays down the most newsworthy aspects of Pugliese’s background. The FERC appointment announcement lists Pugliese’s major work experience, including “as a consultant on energy issues involving solar, oil and natural gas at Pugliese Associates.” The announcement notes, “He also served on Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale Commission.” This brief description leaves out that Pugliese Associates is a Pennsylvania lobbying firm and that the Marcellus Shale Commission is a trade organization for the fracking industry.

Likewise, Pugliese’s interview about FERC on Breitbart radio in July was only reported in wonky outlets such as Natural Gas Intel and Politico. Given the Trump administration’s established preference for right-wing media outlets and the relative obscurity of FERC, that's not surprising. However, the interview signaled a tonal shift in an institution that has generally presented a banal, bureaucratic public face.

Amanda House tweet FERC interview

In her tweet promoting the evening’s show, host Amanda House described Pugliese’s segment as “MAGA Energy ⚡️with special guest @FERC’s @RealAPugliese.” “#MAGA” proliferated in the profiles of users who liked and retweeted the tweet.

In the 22-minute interview, House’s goals are clear: get an energy “expert” to share how President Obama did everything wrong and interject occasional barbs about environmentalists, regulators, Democrats, and renewable energy. While eager to praise President Trump and boast of FERC’s importance, saying, “More and more people are starting to figure out the impact that we have on the economy; I think that we oversee about 5% of GDP,” when pressed on FERC’s positions, Pugliese alternates between lines like this:

“From the Commission’s perspective, we are a fuel-neutral agency, we don’t pick winners and losers.”

And this:

“LNG really is such an amazing opportunity for our country, for our economy.”

A ThinkProgress story on FERC noted that Pugliese’s appointment and interview signal that under Trump, and with a Republican majority, FERC is “willing to shed its political independence.” As with many regulatory bodies whose leadership have become more bellicose and ideological in the current administration, though, this analysis begs the question of whether the institution’s actions were significantly better under more genteel leadership.

FERC has long been criticized for prioritizing fossil fuel companies’ interests over the actual regulatory questions it is tasked with assessing and its revolving door with the fossil fuel and utility companies it regulates. Even appointees by Democrats frequently came from and left for fossil-fuel-connected positions in the private sector. Perhaps under previous administrations, Pugliese’s lack of relevant experience for his position and recently-departed Commissioner Robert Powelson’s characterization of pipeline opponents as waging “jihad” may have prevented their nominations, and Pugliese may have shared his views at a fracked-gas industry conference instead of on a right-wing propaganda program.

Pugliese laid bare this hypocrisy in early August, a few weeks after his Breitbart interview, when he displayed the same lack of decorum and confused representation of FERC at a meeting of the American Nuclear Society. Pugliese surprised the audience with bold positions about cybersecurity, the comparative reliability of natural gas and other fuels, and the role of FERC in determining federal government energy policies.

One of the Trump administration’s more controversial energy policies has been Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s preference for the nuclear and coal industries. Perry’s DOE claims that cybersecurity threats to the electric grid and natural gas pipelines are increasing, and that supporting coal and nuclear power is the solution. Among his remarks, Pugliese claimed, "We are working with DOD and DOE and NSC to identify the [coal and nuclear] plants that we think would be absolutely critical to ensuring that not only our military bases but things like hospitals and other critical infrastructure are able to be maintained, regardless of what natural or man-made disasters might occur."

"I'll pick on New York because I enjoy doing that"

- Pugliese in his remarks at the American Nuclear Society, before reiterating his frustration with the state's leadership for blocking some natural gas infrastructure projects.

Many in the federal government and natural gas industry interpreted Pugliese’s remarks as indicating a bias for coal and nuclear within FERC and a plan to expand their role in shaping energy policy through assuming executive branch agencies’ duties or coordinating with them. A month after extolling the natural gas industry as a cornerstone of national security in his Breitbart interview, Pugliese’s remarks at the conference led the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America to issue a statement saying that "It appears that Mr. Pugliese could use a refresher on some basic facts and our industry's commitment to this very serious issue [of cybersecurity].”

However, on the same day, Pugliese tweeted, “Here in Jacksonville with @RepTedYoho talking LNG and how we can increase the exportation of freedom @SecretaryPerry @POTUS @brvmcc @FERC @EnergyDepSec @ENERGY”

In a public letter to FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre, Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wa., and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J asked him to explain Pugliese’s remarks and behavior, saying they “call into question the impartiality and independence of the Commission.” They also questioned how Pugliese was chosen for his position in the first place.

Chairman McIntyre's response was worthy of any Trump administration official. In an official letter, McIntyre wrote, "The Commission speaks exclusively through its orders. Consequently, neither the public statements of Mr. Pugliese nor those of any other FERC staff member can state the views of the Commission, particularly in connection with proceedings on which the Commission has not issued an order on the merits."

UtilityDive has a longer analysis of McIntyre's respose to Cantwell and Pallone's questions. However, for the general public, the most relevant question seems to be if there is any useful information in Pugliese’s antics and the scandal they’ve provoked. Like many Trump administration acts and appointees, Pugliese’s norm-violating behavior is laying bare existing tensions and dirty workings in the federal government. Pugliese is increasing confusion as to the government’s fossil fuel of choice, disrupting industry-government understandings by saying the wrong thing to the wrong industry conference, and making political remarks whose lack of gentility seems to demand a correction.

Industry and government insiders are begging for the dust to settle and a new paradigm, perhaps slightly different from the old paradigm, to be revealed. Meanwhile, advocates wonder: in an agency that often enacts negative policies, are the results of directionless chaos more beneficial than methodical destructiveness? Is it harder to make inroads with an organized and opposed agency or a disorganized and opposed agency? Pugliese, pugilistic and incoherent, is one of many living symbols of this dilemma.

Amid the tumult, FERC moved forward with one major initiative: on August 31st, FERC officially announced the streamlining (or expediting) of environmental reviews for 12 LNG export terminals.

LNG carrier ship

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