President Joe Biden’s efforts to deliver on his ambitious climate agenda are getting a big boost from the leader of one often overlooked agency who has used his position to home in on the energy industry’s greenhouse gas impact.
Now that official, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chair Richard Glick, may see his efforts to put climate change at the forefront of federal energy policy cost him his job.
Glick, who was appointed to FERC in 2017 and elevated to the chair role last year by Biden, has pushed policies that angered prominent lawmakers, including many Republicans — and, most crucially, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who as the upper chamber’s swing vote has weakened much of Biden’s climate agenda. That’s put Glick’s future at risk after his current term on the commission ends in June.
Former FERC staff say Glick has launched perhaps the most far-reaching agenda of any leader ever at the commission, which regulates U.S. power markets and approves the siting of gas pipeline infrastructure. His efforts to reshape the agency’s mission include conducting closer examinations of the climate impacts of new energy infrastructure, as well as the effects of existing natural gas pipelines and fossil fuel facilities on low-income areas and minority communities where they are often located.
FERC will play a key role in fostering the transition to a low-carbon economy, said Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.), who has sought to raise the agency’s profile.
“If we are going to get carbon emissions down as quickly as we need to, we are going to have to substantially electrify huge parts of our economy, which means building a lot of generation, building a lot of transmission, doing things that are uniquely within the purview of an agency that most Americans don’t know anything about,” Casten said in a statement.
New rules spearheaded by Glick could also require companies seeking to build new pipelines prove that the projects are needed to strengthen regional reliability and save customers money. That change would counter criticism that the agency has greenlit projects that sometimes weren’t justified by consumer demand but would boost utility company revenues.
Red states and other opponents of FERC’s new approach flooded the commission with formal challenges to those policies earlier this month, accusing the agency of going far beyond its statutory authority. They also argue that the policies will harm the reliability of energy supplies and raise consumers’ costs, by making pipelines more expensive to site and chilling investment.
A FERC spokesperson declined to say whether Glick has met with any members of Congress to discuss the end of his term, saying in a statement only that he is “focused on moving the work of the Commission forward” and remains committed to his agenda.
In an interview last month, Glick said he would stay on if the Senate and the White House backed him, a sentiment he reiterated to reporters Thursday. The White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s offices did not respond to requests for comment on whether they would seek to reappoint and reconfirm Glick.
“I like the job. I like what I’m doing. I hope I’m making a positive impact on the commission, but I’m going to let those decisions be made by President Biden and the Senate and I’m just going to continue to do what we need to do,” Glick said. “Hopefully, with as much unity as possible.”
Renewable energy backers and climate groups in particular worry that if the Senate declines to give him another term, his departure would let the commission slip back into a deadlock, stalling critical action on clean energy. FERC spent several months last year with two Democrats and two Republicans at loggerheads before Commissioner Willie Phillips was confirmed, giving Democrats a majority.
Even after Glick’s term ends, the commission’s rules allow him to stay until the end of the year.
Bipartisan cooperation is possible on some of the issues that come before the commission, but having a full complement of five commissioners is always preferable, said Jeff Dennis, a former FERC staffer and general counsel at the clean energy business group Advanced Energy Economy. And given the delays over nominating and confirming Phillips last year, he’s not optimistic that Glick could be quickly replaced.
“I think everyone in the industry is watching now very carefully,” Dennis said. Regardless of where industry officials stand on the issues, “a commission of less than five — and one that has some fundamental splits on some key issues — isn’t really good for anybody.”
Glick’s departure could stall FERC’s work in updating transmission policies and market rules to support the development and expansion of clean energy, said Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program.
“The worst case scenario would be a split commission,” he said.
Still, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said he believes Glick has already accomplished so much that any successor would have no trouble keeping his agenda at FERC on track.
“Chairman Glick’s done an amazing job [of] sort of taking a FERC that was headed oftentimes in the wrong direction and getting it organized to facilitate a modern electric grid and the kind of changes that we’re talking about,” Heinrich said on a call with reporters last week. “I think he’s been remarkable. At the same time, I think that anyone that the Biden administration nominates, the majority of my colleagues are going to want to see that same skill set.”
Glick was confirmed without controversy under the Trump administration in 2017 under the long-standing practice of allocating seats to each party. But the bipartisanship that led to his confirmation has wavered in recent weeks as Republicans — and Manchin — have become increasingly irate over the commission’s action on pipelines and related gas infrastructure.
Under Trump, the commission often focused on improving economics for gas-fired plants by raising prices for state-subsidized renewables in the regional markets. FERC also approved liquefied natural gas projects at a rapid clip — enough to double U.S. export capacity — and approved thousands of miles of pipelines.
Earlier this month, Manchin’s committee summoned all five FERC commissioners to answer for a controversial gas policy statement on pipelines that the agency had adopted in a 3-2 partisan vote. The policy statement directs FERC to take a harder look at how pipelines contribute to climate change and affect low-income communities and communities of color — as well as more closely assess whether a pipeline is needed in the first place.
Tensions were high at the oversight hearing. The committee’s top Republican, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, threatened to dissolve the pipeline policy using a law called the Congressional Review Act, though it’s unclear if Congress has the legal authority to do so. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) threatened to get rid of the agency altogether. Manchin was also critical of the commission, and has heightened his criticism of Glick in particular in recent weeks.