Cheryl LaFleur will likely end her nearly decade-long tenure with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission sometime later this year, perhaps as early as this summer. She served two presidents and survived metric tons of proverbial political change.
She has seen the commission unified, seen it powerless without a quorum and, lately more than ever in her time, divisive on numerous fronts, in her opinion. The partisan battles that raged outside the comfy confines of FERC headquarters have infiltrated inside on issues such as carbon emissions and the role of markets.
“I am still trying to decide case by case, still trying to get things partly my way, and still trying to find the middle where I can—if a middle exists,” LaFleur told the Energy Bar Association during a retrospective speech Tuesday in Washington D.C., according to her own transcript. “That has meant trying to find a way to vote out orders for infrastructure I think are needed even if I have to supplement the climate analysis myself.”
LaFleur shared those insights and more when giving an address of her time with FERC at the EBA. Earlier this year, LaFleur said she was stepping down from FERC—which she has served since her appointment by President Obama in 2010-although she made it sound like the decision was not of her choosing at the time.
“While this was not the outcome I had hoped for,” she said in January announcing her decision not to seek a third term, LaFleur may step down when her term ends June 30.
On Tuesday, the longtime FERC commissioner gave a chronological overview of her nine years in office. The commission worked together in a mostly non-partisan fashion over the course of those years, she said.
And there was a time when it didn’t work at all, after President Trump forced then chairman Norman Bay out and others resigned, leaving LaFleur as the acting chair…and only member.
Then Trump appointed interim chair Neil Chatterjee, Rob Glickman and, soon, new chairman Kevin McIntyre. The refortified FERC worked through the backlog of cases and orders, “trying to get the agency back to normal” in a coordinated effort, she said.
“There was one unusual change—more administration involvement in selecting senior staff—but we were excited to be able to get back to work, so we just rolled with it,” LaFleur recounted, according to the transcript.
That unity was tested severely early in McIntyre’s leadership, when Energy Secretary Rick Perry pushed for proposed rulemaking to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants.
The DOE stance was that coal and nuclear retirements were presenting a danger to the power generation sector. Those tesources should be rewarded for their onsite fuel security attributes as a balance to intermittent renewable energies and gas-fired plants which require pipelines, according to the DOE-Perry argument in line with the president’s pro-coal sentiments.
“I was very pleased when FERC unanimously rejected the notice of proposed rulemaking in January 2018,” LaFleur said. “That was what the record required, but it also protected FERC independence. I give Rob (Powelson) a lot of credit for holding his ground on his pro-market views, and Kevin for bringing us together at the end.”
Cracks began to show in this unity later in the year, she added. A key point of contention arose when FERC decided, by a split vote, not to disclose estimates of the upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emission impacts of natural gas pipeline projects.
LaFleur pointed out that the disclosures had been part of orders for the previous two years. She and former Democratic Senate aid Rich Glick opposed the deal.
The most traumatic event of the past year was not politics, LaFleur recalled, but the death of McIntyre due to illness. Chatterjee is now the chairman, and recently confided that, despite his opposition to the DOE’s proposed rulemaking on subsidies, might reconsider in the face of accelerating coal and nuclear plant retirements.
“The loss of Kevin was a major blow to the agency on both a personal and professional level,” she told the EBA. “Coupled with Rob Powelson’s departure last summer, the reconstituted FERC of December 2017 never had a full chance to get its bearings and tackle the commission’s work.”
Trump has not named a successor to LaFleur nor even confirmed he was replacing her.