Controversial Obama nominee withdraws from bid to be FERC chairman

Facing the prospect of a negative recommendation from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, controversial Colorado consultant Ronald J. Binz withdrew his nomination by President Obama to chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Binz, a Democrat, announced his withdrawal Oct. 1, after all Republicans and one Democrat on the energy committee reportedly said they would not support the nomination. Ranking Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, led the opposition, announcing after Binz’ confirmation hearing Sept. 19 that she would be unable to support him.

Binz’ reputation as a proponent of renewable energy at the expense of fossil fuels sparked much of the opposition, including that of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who was particularly concerned about Binz’ work to close coal plants in Colorado. At the confirmation hearing, the Democrat said coal-rich West Virginia was being harmed by Obama administration policies, saying, “We are getting the living crap beat out of us by the administration.”

During the confirmation hearing, Murkowski challenged Binz on reports he participated in a campaign for his nomination that was being waged by lobbyists for green energy firms, Democratic strategists, and energy companies. She said, in a private meeting with Binz, the nominee had assured her he was not involved in such a campaign on his behalf.

However, Murkowski confronted the nominee with copies of e-mails, obtained under federal open records laws, that revealed he had been communicating with the lobbyists. She said in one e-mail he called them the “team” and asked them to review the background information he planned to submit to the committee. Murkowski noted one backer is the Green Tech Action Fund, an affiliate of the Energy Foundation, a former client of Binz.

Binz apologized to the senator, saying he had told her he had been unaware of the lobbying effort, then recalled “this one meeting” and had advised her of three contacts he had had “with these folks.” He said since July 15 he has not coordinated with them and had asked them not to contact him. Binz said he had predicted there would be a fight over his confirmation because there were “very conservative groups against me in Colorado.”

Additionally, defending himself during the hearing, Binz had said the biggest coal plant in Colorado was approved during his tenure on the PUC. However, published reports later said that plant was approved before Binz joined the state commission.

Obama nominated Binz, a Democrat and former chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, to FERC on June 27 with the intent of naming him chairman of the five-member panel.

Binz has been principal of Public Policy Consulting since resigning from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission in 2011. He has consulted in energy and telecommunications markets with a focus on climate, clean technology, integrated resource planning, and smart grids.

A proponent of renewable energy, Binz served as chairman of the Colorado PUC from 2007 to 2011 during which he helped implement Colorado’s contentious Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act. The act offered incentives for closing aging coal-fired power plants and switching to gas-fired generation. The PUC approved closure of six coal plants, as well as the addition of pollution controls at two more and the construction of new natural gas plants at a cost of about $1 billion.

Two days before nominating Binz on June 27, Obama unveiled a climate change plan aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions by existing power plants, which is expected to have a significant effect on power generation, especially coal. Binz told the committee he had not communicated with the White house about the climate change plan.

The White House has not indicated who it might choose as a successor to its nominee.

If approved, Binz would have succeeded FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff who submitted his resignation to the president in May. The White House asked Wellinghoff, a Democrat, to continue in office as chairman until his successor could be confirmed. Although Wellinghoff’s term expired June 30, a departing commissioner may continue to serve until the end of the current congressional session if no successor has been seated.

No more than three members of the same party may serve on the five-member commission. The other two Democrats on the commission are John Norris, whose term expires in 2017, and Cheryl LaFleur, whose term expires in 2014. Republicans on the panel are Philip Moeller, whose term expires in 2015, and Anthony Clark, whose term expires in 2016.

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