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President Joe Biden delivers remarks during day two of the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate at the East Room of the White House April 23, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden delivers remarks during day two of the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate at the East Room of the White House April 23, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images)

Failing Key Climate Test, Biden Nominates Fossil Fuel 'Crony' to Federal Energy Post

"This is a disappointing selection. Willie Phillips has spent his career working on the side of the oil and gas industry and electric utility giants. We need a climate champion at FERC."

Jessica Corbett

Climate campaigners and critics of corporate influence in politics responded with alarm Thursday to President Joe Biden's selection of Willie L. Phillips Jr. for a key federal energy post, given the raging climate emergency and the nominee's record both in government and as a private attorney.

"We're deeply concerned about whether the new commissioner will be too closely tied to the energy utilities that have put profit above people."
—Jean Su, Center for Biological Diversity

The White House statement announcing Phillips' nomination to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) celebrated his experience chairing the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia and called him "an experienced regulatory attorney combining nearly 20 years of legal expertise as a utility regulator, in private practice, and as in-house counsel."

FERC—which regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, gas, and oil and reviews proposals for building certain energy infrastructure—has previously been accused of being a "rubber stamp" for the fossil fuel industry, and Biden faced pressure to appoint a climate champion to the commission.

Neil Chatterjee, a Republican commissioner who left FERC when his term expired earlier this summer, welcomed Biden's move in a tweet, calling Phillips a "friend," saying that "it would be an honor to have him succeed me," and wishing him luck with the Senate confirmation process.

By contrast, Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones declared that "this is a disappointing selection. Willie Phillips has spent his career working on the side of the oil and gas industry and electric utility giants."

"We need a climate champion at FERC, someone who has a demonstrated record of challenging the fossil fuel industry and putting the public interest before corporate utility profits," Jones added. "Unfortunately, nothing in Phillips' career thus far has shown that he will be that champion; in fact, quite the opposite."

Jean Su, Energy Justice Program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, was similarly critical of Phillips' nomination—especially considering the worsening climate emergency and FERC's responsibilities.

"From gas pipelines to LNG export terminals, few agencies play as pivotal a role in abetting the global climate emergency as FERC," Su said, "so we're deeply concerned about whether the new commissioner will be too closely tied to the energy utilities that have put profit above people."

"The next FERC commissioner must center justice in decision-making, stop rubber-stamping fossil fuel infrastructure, and rapidly integrate renewable energy into the grid, while shielding low-wealth communities from bearing the costs," she emphasized.

Su and Food & Water Watch national organizing manager Thomas Meyer were convening partners of an August letter backed by over 460 advocacy groups urging Biden to pick a "new FERC commissioner who will center science, justice, and equity, and end the era of dirty gas and other fossil fuels."

The letter, which echoed a previous one sent to the president in June, also offered some potential candidates. Dorothy Slater of the Revolving Door Project—which scrutinizes executive branch appointees to ensure they are serving the public rather than personal or corporate interests—was also a leader on last month's letter.

Responding to Phillips' selection Thursday, Slater said that "#HotFERCSummer has ended as disappointingly as every other part of this summer. I wrote for The American Prospect last month that Phillips has done the bidding of utilities giants during his time on the D.C. Public Service Commission, and spent years working for corporate Big Law firms which represent oil and gas interests."

"Elsewhere, I highlighted that he voted to approve rate hikes for D.C. residents and Exelon's purchase of D.C. electricity provider Pepco, furthering monopolization in the industry," she noted. "This despite the vehement opposition of over half of D.C. neighborhood governments, several council members, climate activists, and solar energy advocates."

Taking aim at the president and pointing to the August letter, Slater added that "for Biden to nominate such a person in the face of a climate emergency and against the wishes of 466 environmental justice-aligned groups is cynical and short-sighted."

"However, Revolving Door Project's work does not end when a nomination, disappointing or heartening, is made," she said. "We will work to make the unlikely reality by applying pressure on Phillips and FERC to disprove our justifiable pessimism. It will take an extraordinary about-face from Phillips to keep onlookers from seeing him as a crony of the fossil fuel industry. We'll be monitoring Phillips closely, and expect hard work from him to green the grid at scale. Anything else will be forgoing the future for the sake of a few tycoons' short-term profits."

Slater seemed to expect the Senate's confirmation of Phillips while Su, who also noted the Pepco move, called on senators to put pressure on the nominee regarding his record.

"Mr. Phillips' record and approval of Pepco's merger with Exelon bears close scrutiny to ensure that he can regulate independently of utility interests," she said. "We hope the Senate will ask the tough questions of Mr. Phillips about his commitment to ending FERC's disastrous status quo so we can finally prioritize environmental and energy justice in our energy policies."


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