Obama FERC nominee Ron Binz withdraws amid coal pushback
President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead FERC announced Tuesday that he had pulled his name from consideration in the face of mounting opposition from coal supporters and a stalemate in a crucial Senate committee.
The fall of the former Colorado utility regulator Ron Binz is a stunning setback for the president, who has succeeded in winning Senate confirmations for far more controversial nominees at EPA, the Pentagon and the Labor Department.
Perhaps just as striking was the political fervor brought to bear against a nominee to lead a regulator that is little known outside of Washington, and one that typically restricts its work to the highly technical rules for the nation’s energy backbone of power lines and pipelines.
“Last evening I asked the president that my name be withdrawn from further consideration as his nominee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” Binz said in a statement from his Colorado energy-policy consulting firm, less than two weeks after it became clear he didn’t have the votes to win the backing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
He added: “I am withdrawing so that the president can move forward with another nominee, allowing the FERC to continue its important work with a full complement of commissioners.”
In an interview with POLITICO, Binz said his failed bid to lead the agency was a “cautionary tale” for regulators and energy policy.
“I think the implications of this fight are something worth pondering. If this kind of handling of a nomination becomes … the new normal, that’s going to make it a lot more difficult for good energy policy to grow,” he said.
The career energy regulator and consultant said his record was “spun and respun” in an effort to show he was biased against coal and unfairly in favor of renewable power sources.
“The caricature that they created had nothing to do with who I am and nothing to do with what I might’ve brought to FERC. It was just a blood sport,” he said.
The battle over Binz was unprecedented among the four current FERC commissioners, along with outgoing Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, who had all been confirmed by the Senate on a simple voice vote.
But Binz’s nomination drew an unusual flurry of circumstances: Unlike many past nominees for FERC, he wasn’t paired with a nominee from the other party to ensure a smoother confirmation. Some critics found it odd that Obama chose an outsider to chair FERC rather than elevate a sitting commissioner. Backs also stiffened on the news that an environmental organization hired a public relations firm to help Binz’s nomination — a level of political maneuvering not previously seen at the independent regulator.
He lost all Republican support on the energy committee within days of testifying last month, in part for his past and perceived policies, and in part because of the strategy on how his nomination was handled.
Critics claimed that Binz’s past work as chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission showed an anti-coal bias, and he quickly drew criticism from groups such as the American Energy Alliance and the American Tradition Institute. Eventually, the issue prompted Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to announce his opposition to Binz, a move that would have led to a tie vote on the nomination in the committee.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page moved quickly after Binz was nominated in late June, launching multiple attacks against that dubbed him a “radical,” and criticizing FERC’s actions during the Obama administration.
The August recess also gave Binz’s opponents crucial time to attack his record. It also provided enough time for his critics to file a request for documents that showed him in email communication with the PR firm and other political operatives on his FERC nomination — disclosures that ultimately alienated a key Republican voice on the energy committee, ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
The time and effort spent muddying his reputation was unfair, Binz said.
“I came to Washington with this 35-year career behind me only to encounter a fictional Ron Binz, a fictional character that I didn’t recognize and I would never even support,” he told POLITICO. “I’m 64 years old. The term is a five-year term, so I would have been 69 at the end of this,” Binz said. “That adds up to fact that this was not a career lillypad for me. This was a sort of capstone of my career.”
Binz lamented that much of the opposition to his nomination wasn’t really about policy issues but rather that “almost immediately, my appointment devolved into pretty raw, partisan and sectoral politics.”
He said his views on coal and natural gas regulation were twisted into caricatures, and that he had a record of supporting cleaner technologies to use fossil fuels, such as carbon capture technologies.
“I was hardly against those fuels. I believe the science of climate change and I think we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but that’s different from saying I’m anti-coal or anti-gas,” he said.
Binz also balked at the way FERC’s regulatory powers were characterized by his opponents, who argued that a Binz chairmanship would mean slower approvals for liquefied natural gas facilities and interstate pipelines, which the agency oversees.
“This whole notion about what I might do at the FERC completely ignored what the actual authorities of the FERC were,” Binz said, flatly denying assertions that he would put a thumb on the scale in favor of renewable energy over fossil fuels.
“I think this notion that I was somehow going to use the FERC for all kinds of extralegal purposes … completely belies the career that I’ve had to this point,” he said.
He also said that the fact that his nomination was announced the same week that Obama unveiled his climate action plan was purely coincidence.
“I’ve never spoken to the White House about the climate action plan and I had no vision that FERC had a role in that, other than a very indirect one in the sense that FERC works to ensure access to energy markets from all resources,” he said.
“That might be read by some as favoring some resources, in the sense that making the playing field level for everybody favors resources that have been shut out previously,” Binz said, referring to renewable energy sources, which have sought changes to regulatory hurdles that affect intermittent power like solar and wind.
And he said he was never part of an Obama climate strategy.
“I was doing the talking, they weren’t. I frankly didn’t know what they were looking for,” he said. “I talked about my theory of what regulation could and should try to achieve.
Binz also said it was his preference that led Obama to nominate him for the top FERC job rather than simply as one of the five commissioners.
“In December of 2012 when I interviewed with the White House, I was asked if I would be interested in a position other than the chairmanship and I said I would not,” he said, since he’d spent the previous 40 years in Denver and was entering the latter stage of his career.
“I thought I had the talent and vision to lead the FERC and so I was interested in that position,” he said. “So, they knew then that if they were going to choose me, I would accept it if I were named chairman and I would not otherwise.”
And though his nomination drew the interest of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Binz said he’d actually never spoken to the Nevada Democrat.
“I’ve never met Sen. Reid. He doesn’t know me and I don’t know him,” he said. Binz said he’d never spoken to Reid directly but has had some discussions with his staff while trying to win their support for his nomination.
He also continued to defend his interactions with Murkowski, contending that he didn’t intentionally mislead her.
“I don’t know what happened. I attempted to be as open as I could be with her in the discussions in her office,” Binz said, referring to Murkowski’s concerns over his coordination efforts with VennSquared Communications, the PR firm.
“I was not trying to obscure anything,” he said.
Alex Guillén contributed to this report.
If you missed the live webcast of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on 9/17/13, you can watch the archived video. CLICK HERE TO WATCH.
The purpose of the 9/17/13 hearing was to consider the nominations of Mr. Ronald J. Binz to be a Commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Ms. Elizabeth M. Robinson to be Under Secretary of Energy, and Mr. Michael L. Connor to be Deputy Secretary of Interior.