Reid Pushed White House to Appoint Energy Regulator Now Targeted by Conservatives

Amy Harder

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., persuaded the White House to drop its nominee to lead an obscure but important federal energy agency and replace him with an appointee whose confirmation process is now embroiled in controversy, according to the trade publication Transmission Hub.

Reid considered President Obama's original choice for chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, John Norris, to be too "pro-coal," the Hub reported Thursday. Obama then tapped Ron Binz, former chair of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, to be FERC chairman.

Binz's confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and some fireworks are expected. Controversy over Binz's nomination has escalated over the past couple of months, including a scathing Wall Street Journal editorial in July describing Binz as the "most important and radical Obama nominee you've never heard of."

The Journal editorial board, along with congressional Republicans, some Democrats (including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.), and the coal industry have criticized Binz's past work. This includes a state law he helped write that aimed to shut down coal-fired power plants and his upfront philosophy of favoring renewable energy.

FERC oversees the interstate transmission of electricity and oil and natural-gas pipelines, as well as hydroelectricity projects. It does not have any direct influence in power-generation policy-making.

Obama first nominated Norris to FERC in 2010. He is the second-most senior Democrat on the five-member panel after outgoing Chairman Jon Wellinghoff.

Norris was previously chief of staff to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa. Norris's roots are in Iowa; he was chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board and served on several other utility organizations based in the state. He earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Iowa.

"Reid's chief of staff informed me that Reid intervened with the White house to stop my appointment as chair because, as told to me by his chief of staff, I was 'too pro-coal,' " Norris told Transmission Hub.

Norris denied the characterization by Reid's office that he is pro-coal, according to the Hub. He also told the publication that he believes his nomination was blocked because Reid wanted a FERC chairman from a Western state.

Kristen Orthman, spokeswoman for Reid's office, denied Norris's claims. "Unfortunately Commissioner Norris is wrongly blaming others and making accusations that are not accurate," Orthman said in an e-mail to National Journal

Meanwhile, a group of environmental activists has hired a Washington PR firm, VennSquared Communications, to campaign for Binz as he heads into what looks like a tough and testy Senate confirmation process.

On Thursday, the Washington Times reported on e-mails that revealed two former Reid staffers—Chris Miller, who left the leader's office earlier this year as his top energy and environment aide, and Kai Anderson—also have helped with Binz's confirmation process.

This isn't the first time Reid has wielded his influence in a fight over an obscure energy agency. He was instrumental in having Gregory Jaczko, a former Reid aide, appointed chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a post Jaczko left last year after a controversy over his management style.

Coral Davenport contributed