Courtesy of Union Of Concerned Scientists.
By Mike Jacobs, Senior energy analyst
Gather in and read the news! Prepare yourselves for sights never before seen!
Ok, I’m no carnival sideshow barker, but this also isn’t a sideshow. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is creating an Office of Public Participation after 35 years of dodging the issue. This truly is a once in a lifetime chance for reform in a very important government agency.
FERC is the government agency that supervises, approves, and sometimes punishes companies that build gas pipelines (plus compressor stations and LNG terminals) and hydropower dams on rivers. It also oversees the electric grid’s reliability, operations, and prices.
Getting this new office going in the right direction could be a great change for communities and organizations that are fighting for energy justice, or better prices, or a say in what happens in their communities.
This office could allow people who might have to live with pipelines or community groups fighting to be heard about compressor stations get a chance to speak. Communities of people would be able to navigate FERC’s regulatory processes.
If the Office of Public Participation was set up with intervenor funding, it could provide money to those organizations so they could hire the lawyers and expert witnesses needed to sway commission decisions. Cities and towns that have been stuck with raw deals to buy overpriced power from power companies could better match the legal and technical power that utility companies bring to FERC proceedings.
FERC is unique for a federal agency because it is entirely self-funded. The money that keeps the office going comes from fees on developers and fines from companies that engage in harmful activities like market manipulation.
This agency has grown and evolved over almost 100 years, but it has always been opaque and difficult for all but the specialists in the energy industry.
Where it comes from
In the mid-1970’s, as part of a sweeping government shift to increase openness and environmental awareness, Congress passed an energy reform law that authorized FERC to establish the Office of Public Participation. While many of the consumer and environmental protection laws created in that decade are well-known, this new branch was never set up inside FERC. Until now. In December 2020 Congress ordered FERC to do something about this and to report on the plan by June 25, 2021.
What it could do
For a change, this office could help people and communities. Engaging with FERC is complicated and can be expensive. Making a concern heard can require understanding the legal and technical issues at work. Without this office helping the public on the process, a community’s concerns could go unheard. Until the Office of Public Participation is up and staffed, the obstacles for engagement remain.
The new leadership at FERC has made clear what they want this new office to do. FERC Chairman Richard Glick is elevating environmental justice and equity. His pick to get this started, Commissioner Allison Clements, announced: “My priorities are to listen to stakeholders and to incorporate EJ and frontline communities who’ve lacked representation before FERC.”
Public engagement at FERC is important because FERC makes decisions that impact people’s lives. FERC sets the rules and costs that utilities and power plant owners will collect from consumers. With nearly 1/3 of Americans struggling to pay their electric bills, keeping an eye on energy affordability is important.
What YOU can do
- Prepare for April 16 workshop by nominating speakers by March 10. People usually nominate themselves. Send your name and organization or community to OPPWorkshopNominations@ferc.gov.
- Get started between now and April on some comments about how this office should work. Anyone can send written comments to FERC. Here’s a general look at the process. I’m adding more specific areas below.
- Plan for another round of comments when details become more clear. FERC is pushing up against the deadline Congress set to write a progress report to Congress in June. Once that report sets out some details, FERC will have more workshops and more questions to decide about the workings of this office and thus more opportunities for the public to comment.
How can we shape it
There are more ways to look at this change at FERC and respond to it. I’m offering one set of advice to help people understand what speakers and comment writers can talk about in comments:
- Ensure that the June report written by the current leadership sets down a strong foundation. Define how FERC will report on how this new Public Participation Office fills its mission so future leaders at FERC can’t easily gut those requirements
- Define the ways the Commission can enhance public participation and engagement, the ability to investigate problematic procedures and issue reports.
Questions that need answers
What should the Office do for the public?
- Tell FERC about the need for technical and financial assistance related to proposals that come up; who qualifies and who does not qualify for assistance; what kind of assistance is needed.
- Provide access, education, assistance to the public on the role of FERC and utilities that seek FERC approvals for the people impacted. Help individuals or groups who would be interested in learning more about FERC actions, commenting or perhaps formally intervening.
- Tell FERC what should be included in successful public outreach programs. What lessons can be learned from other outreach efforts?
What power should the Office have, and how should it be accountable?
- Should this office be able to act on failures of the regulated industry to comply with commitments to the public?
- Should this office provide rules with regard to public access to information?
- What are good metrics for OPP to track to objectively assess its success?
This is your chance, gentlefolks. Tell the federal government to see that the law established in the 1970s is put into service for the people it was intended to help. Speak up about what changes will help. There’s a lot the FERC is seeking to learn. Let’s help them help us.