Phillips Addresses ‘Acting’ Status as FERC Awaits Nominees
FERC Chair Willie Phillips
FERC Chair Willie Phillips | © RTO Insider LLC

What’s in a name? That is the question for FERC Chair — or is it “acting” Chair? — Willie Phillips.


What’s in a name?

That was the question FERC Chair — or “acting” Chair — Willie Phillips was asked at his press conference after the commission’s open meeting Oct. 19.

The FERC press release announcing Phillips’ elevation in January called him “acting chair,” but that has no legal definition under the commission’s governing statute. And the “acting” caveat was missing from the order President Joe Biden signed appointing Phillips. Phillips was confirmed by the Senate in 2021 to a term that ends June 30, 2026.

“Let me be clear: I work at the pleasure, and I serve at the pleasure, of the president,” Phillips said in response to a question about the discrepancy. “And I’m honored to serve. On January 3, 2023, I was named the chairman and the leader of this agency. Nothing has changed.”

This month, the conservative Institute for Energy Research released Biden’s order, which it obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

IER said FERC took nearly eight months to respond to its FOIA request and that it did so under a court-ordered deadline.

“It is now clear … FERC had the document all along, but for some reason did not want it to see the light of day,” IER President Thomas Pyle said in a statement. “It is also clear from the order that Commissioner Phillips is not the ‘acting’ chairman, as stated in the original FERC press release, but rather the full-fledged chairman.”

Initially, Biden had tapped former Chairman Richard Glick for another term running FERC, but that was scuttled by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). (See FERC’s Work in 2022 Left in Doubt by Manchin.)

Manchin and committee Republicans had criticized some of Glick’s proposals on how FERC reviews applications to build natural gas pipelines and other infrastructure. Phillips got a much warmer reception from that committee in a hearing in May. (See Senators Praise Phillips, FERC’s Output at Oversight Hearing.)

The White House told E&E News in January that Phillips would be acting chair until Biden appointed a “permanent” chair, and reiterated the “acting” designation this month.

The commission has added to the confusion: While press releases refer to Phillips only as “chairman,” his biography page lists him as “acting.”

Although appointment to FERC requires Senate confirmation, the appointment of the chair is the president’s authority alone.

At the hearing in May, Manchin told Phillips “there is no such thing as an ‘acting’ chair,” adding, “I’m glad you’ve been able to hit the ground running.”

“Once the president says you’re chairman, you’re chairman,” former FERC Chair Jon Wellinghoff said in an interview. “This ‘acting’ thing is all, you know, a big tempest in a tea pot, as they say.”

The president can rescind the chair appointment at his discretion, which happened to former Chair Neil Chatterjee late in the Trump administration.

Chatterjee said in an interview that Phillips is going to be running FERC through the end of 2024 at least, after which the commission’s leadership depends on the outcome of the next presidential election. The issue around the “acting” language had nothing to do with Phillips personally, but rather the White House seeking assurances from Manchin that he would not hold up Glick’s ultimate replacement, Chatterjee said.

Open Seats

FERC has gone more than 10 months without a replacement for Glick, and since then, Commissioner James Danly’s term expired at the end of June, though he can stay on at least until the end of the year, when Congress adjourns. While the Senate schedule has only seven weeks left and some are thinking about a three-member regulator next year, Chatterjee, who was a longtime Senate staffer, said sometimes nominations can move fast.

“Things can be very, very slow,” Chatterjee said. “But then there are times when lightning strikes, and they happen very quickly. So, I wouldn’t rule it out. If there’s momentum to do it, if it were clean, if there’s a pairing that both sides were fine with, it could go very quickly.”

In response to IER’s claims, FERC spokeswoman Mary O’Driscoll said the president’s order accurately reflects that Biden designated Phillips to lead FERC at the start of this year.

“Since he was named chairman, FERC has taken significant, bipartisan steps to enhance grid reliability, address the needs of environmental justice communities, certificate needed energy infrastructure and approve historic transmission reform,” she added. “FERC is working — as it should — to secure a more reliable and sustainable energy future for all Americans.”

After the open meeting, Phillips expressed pride in running an agency that regulates key sectors of the national economy.

“I’m proud of the fact that since I became chairman, we have done significant work to make reliability job number one,” Phillips said. “We have elevated the issue of environmental justice to be something that’s not just whispered about, but actually talked about and confronted by this agency and throughout our industry.”

Phillips also said his background growing up in rural Alabama and being the first Black man to run FERC influenced his job satisfaction. “I was just at Morehouse College … two weeks ago,” Phillips said. “And I know that this is important because people tell me it’s important to them. They see me and they know that they can do anything.”

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