Norris and Clark agree: Federal transmission siting authority can wait

Testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on March 20, the two nominees for FERC seats, Commissioner John Norris and appointee Tony Clark, agreed there is no urgent need for increased federal siting authority for electric transmission lines, but each expressed different reasons for their conclusions.

Norris did not mention siting of electrical transmission is his prepared remarks but the issue came quickly to the fore. Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) directed his first question to both nominees, asking whether they think it “would be advisable for Congress to give [FERC] additional authority to have transmission sited? Do you think we are, under current law, able to build all the transmission we need in this country or do we need to change the law? ”

Norris said, “I wouldn’t say we need to change the law…yet,” adding that the biggest hurdle to getting transmission built in this country has been the inability to reach consensus on cost allocation. He said that is why Order 1000 gives deference to the regional planning entities to come up with a cost allocation formula. “I believe if we can give that a chance to work, that will help remove a major barrier from building transmission in this country,” he said. 

He added that there is some uncertainty about whether FERC’s backstop siting authority would be adequate if cost allocation issues aren’t resolved, if planning entities don’t move forward with transmission builds, and if states begin to withhold siting approval on much-needed projects. In that case, Norris said, “[T]here’s a chance we’d need to revisit [federal siting authority], but I think it would probably be premature at this time.”

Although his prepared remarks contained only a passing reference to transmission siting authority, upon questioning Clark agreed that federal backstop authority is a good idea. “I don’t know that we’d want to have a situation where maybe one state or one township or one county in the middle of a very important reliability line, for example, is able to block that [line],” he said.

However, Clark cited the need for continuing local involvement as a major reason for his hesitance to seek federal siting authority. “Electric transmission, in my experience… is the most difficult infrastructure to site, and so it’s important that we have that point of local contact, the ability of landowners to go directly to a more local commission like a state commission first,” he said.

Responding to a question from his home state senator John Hoeven (R., N.D.), Clark added that FERC should try to support, as much as possible, a “bottoms-up” approach to systems planning. He said regional efforts can advance regional planning “for things like transmission and transmission planning,” and serve to develop “coalitions of the willing [that will] move forward and build out needed energy infrastructure projects.”

The nominees were also asked about whether the EPA’s mercury and air toxics standards (MATS) rule would have an adverse effect on grid reliability.

Referring to a “range of studies” on the topic, Norris predicted the effects of the rules would be “more than the EPA estimates, but less than some doomsday predictions. I think it’s going to land somewhere in the middle.”

Most of those assessments, Norris said, indicated that resources across regions would be adequate, though there could be localized impacts. Still, he said, “I believe there are sufficient tools in place to address reliability concerns going forward.”

On the issue of regulatory certainty, Clark said commission decisions, whether at the state or federal level, must be tied to a strict reading of the law. To do otherwise, he said, opens decisions to legal challenges which, “as much as anything, drives away investment from a regulated sector if there’s the sense that [investors] don’t ever really know that a commission’s finds are going to stick in court.”

After the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee makes its recommendations, the nominations will go before the full Senate.  

Click here to listen to Sen. Bingaman’s question about federal siting authorities and the answers from Norris and Clark.