President Donald Trump has nominated Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Rob Powelson to fill a vacancy on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which oversees interstate pipeline projects. Powelson, who also serves as the president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, recently compared anti-pipeline activists to jihadists, a statement he later walked back.
“The jihad has begun,” he said while speaking at a gas industry conference in March. “At the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission groups actually show up at commissioners homes to make sure we don’t get this gas to market. How irresponsible is that?”
Environmental groups responded by calling for his resignation. Several days later he said his statement was “inappropriate.”
Both FERC and the Pennsylvania PUC play active roles in pipeline regulation, including decisions on whether or not a pipeline company would be granted authority to use eminent domain against land owners who refuse to grant easements for a project.The nomination of Powelson, along with the nomination of Neil Chatterjee, an energy policy advisor to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, comes at a crucial time for interstate pipeline projects. FERC currently has no quorum, which has put major pipeline decisions on hold. The agency needs at least three out of five commissioners to approve projects.
Powelson’s fellow PUC commissioners congratulated him on his nomination and showered him with praise.
“Commissioner Powelson is knowledgeable and passionate about public utility issues – from infrastructure investment and marketplace competition to innovation and the development of our next generation of utility workers,” said PUC Chairwoman Gladys Brown in a statement. “He has also been a strong advocate for Pennsylvania and for the important role of utility regulators across the country. His service reflects well on the work of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and will be positive for the Commonwealth.”
But those battling pipeline projects in Pennsylvania are not so enthusiastic. Eric Friedman is a board member with the Pipeline Safety Coalition. Friedman said Powelson’s comments about pipeline opponents were so offensive, no apologies could redeem him.
“When he called his constituents, the people who are raising safety concerns about pipelines, jihadists, he disqualified himself from any further public office,” said Friedman. “I think he’s shown that he is insensitive, at best, to the legitimate concerns of Pennsylvania residents for whom he works as a PUC commissioner.”
The jihadist comments are not the first time Powelson’s role as a PUC commissioner has raised questions about bias. In 2014 he resigned from the Greater Philadelphia Energy Action Team, a group designed to advocate for energy infrastructure projects including pipelines, after StateImpact published a report about potential conflicts of interest.
Powelson, a Republican, was originally appointed to the Pennsylvania PUC in 2008 by Gov. Ed Rendell, and later named chairman by Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011. PUC commissioners serve in a full-time capacity and Powelson would likely have to resign his post if he is confirmed as a FERC commissioner by the Senate.