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Dive Brief:

  • Bernard McNamee, President Trump’s nominee for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, sharply criticized renewable energy and environmental groups while calling for a “unified campaign” to support fossil fuels in a Feb. 2018 speech before Texas lawmakers, a video obtained by Utility Dive shows.
  • McNamee, at the time working for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), said fossil fuels are “key to our way of life,” but renewable energy “screws up the whole physics of the grid.” He also portrayed industry lawsuits with environmental groups as a “constant battle between liberty and tyranny.”
  • McNamee’s comments come to light as the Senate considers his nomination to FERC. The former Department of Energy official told senators last week he would separate his previous policy work from his regulatory considerations if confirmed, a pledge he reiterated in a statement to Utility Dive.

Dive Insight:

McNamee’s comments are likely to enhance concerns among Democratic senators, environmental groups and the clean energy industry that the FERC nominee is biased against renewable power and toward fossil fuels.

FERC is an independent agency whose regulators typically pride themselves on a “fuel neutral” approach to energy regulation, but a video of McNamee’s speech obtained by Utility Dive shows him calling for a broad industry campaign to build public support for fossil fuels.

“What this is really about is changing the hearts and minds of the American people about what they think about energy and to start believing in it again,” McNamee told an audience at TPPF’s 2018 Policy Orientation for Texas lawmakers. “Understanding that fossil fuels are not something dirty, something we have to move and get away from, but understand that they are key to our prosperity, our way of life and also to a clean environment.”

McNamee also criticized renewable energy in a thinly veiled reference to the political debate around the science of climate change.

“Renewables, when they come on and off, it screws up the whole the physics of the grid,” McNamee said. “So when people want to talk about science, they ought to talk about the physics of the grid and know what real science is, and that is how do you keep the lights on? And it is with fossil fuels and nuclear.”

The argument that coal and nuclear plants are essential for grid reliability was a central tenet of the DOE’s coal and nuclear bailout proposal that McNamee helped design when he headed the agency’s policy office last year. At his confirmation hearing last week, McNamee distanced himself from that plan, which FERC unanimously rejected, saying that he was only following directions as an agency lawyer when he worked on the proposal.

“I understand the difference in my role as a lawyer when I worked on [the bailout] proposal … and what the role of FERC is,” McNamee said. “I can honestly say I would be an independent arbiter if the [coal and nuclear] issues come before me at FERC.”

McNamee’s February speech, however, was not given when he was employed at DOE, but rather during his time as head of the 10th Amendment Center at TPPF, where he worked between stints at the agency this year. In an emailed statement through a FERC spokesperson, McNamee reiterated the same explanation for his comments as he gave senators for his role in the bailout.

“I recognize the significant role that renewables play in our energy mix, and I stand by my statement that if confirmed as a Commissioner, I would be an independent arbiter basing my decisions on the law and the facts, not politics,” McNamee wrote.

The video of McNamee’s speech was provided to Utility Dive by an anonymous source who said it was downloaded from TPPF’s YouTube page in early August, shortly after reports surfaced that McNamee may be nominated to FERC. The source requested anonymity because their organization has not taken a public position on McNamee’s nomination.

TPPF, funded largely by oil and gas interests, lists a number of other speeches from the Policy Orientation on its page, but McNamee’s address is absent. The organization did not respond to requests for comment, but on Tuesday the Energy and Policy Institute, a liberal watchdog group, posted the full video on its YouTube page.

During the filmed speech, McNamee touted his experience as chief of staff for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who sued the Obama administration over the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rules, two environmental regulations. He also assailed environmental groups and their “organized propaganda campaign” against fossil fuels.

“[The Natural Resources Defense Council] and the Environmental Defense Fund, they’re the ones in court. They’re the ones going out there and battling and making the case in their court and they’re winning,” he said. “They are going to try to wait us out, litigate us out, and they’re going to try to return us to the administrative tyranny that they’ve been pushing for so long.”

McNamee also expanded his argument to illustrate a broader political point.

“The green movement is always talking about more government control because it’s the constant battle between liberty and tyranny,” he said. “It’s about people who want to say I know what’s better for you.”

Whether McNamee’s comments will affect his confirmation remains unclear, but he appeared to be headed for approval from the Senate after his hearing last week. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ak., chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that oversees FERC nominations, said she was happy with McNamee’s comments.

“What I took away was that his role when he was at the Department of Energy was to take the Secretary’s directive and to draft that [coal and nuclear] policy,” she told reporters after the hearing. “His role at the FERC would be different than that and I would expect that he would respect those lanes.”