Trump’s New FERC Commissioner Rob Powelson Accepted Gifts from Energy Industry as State Regulator

Robert Powelson during FERC commissioner nomination hearing in Senate

Robert Powelson, President Donald Trump’s newly appointed commissioner to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), received both gifts and reimbursements for travel, lodging, and hospitality from the energy and utility sectors in his previous position as a state regulator. He will now regulate those sectors at the federal level.

Powelson, a Republican, began his tenure at FERC last week. Documents and emails recently uncovered by the Energy & Policy Institute, a watchdog monitoring attacks on renewable energy, indicate that he maintained a close relationship with industry groups as a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

In addition, earlier this year, Powelson said pipeline opponents are engaged in “jihad,” a statement which drew criticism from activists and further solidified his pro-industry image.  

NFL Game and Industry Conferences

DeSmog has found that according to Powelson’s financial interest disclosures at the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission, in September 2013 he accepted two tickets from NRG Energy to attend a football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers. Each ticket cost $105. Powelson attended the game with James Steffes, a senior vice president at NRG Energy, a large energy company operating numerous power generating stations throughout the U.S.     

Rob Powelson's financial disclosure from 2013 shows two NFL football game tickets gifted from NRG Energy
From Powelson’s 2013 disclosure to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

That year, Powelson also received several reimbursements to participate in industry conferences. In June, the Edison Electric Institute, a powerful national utility trade group which has fought distributed solar power, funded Powelson’s attendance at the institute’s convention in San Francisco. Three months later the Florida Natural Gas Association paid for Powelson to attend its conference in Orlando. Powelson was keynote speaker at both events.

The same year, Powelson attended two energy and utilities investment conferences paid for by the organizers. In January the investment firm Boenning & Scattergood funded his participation in its Investor Energy Conference, and in March Morgan Stanley paid for his attendance at its Utilities Conference. Powelson was again keynote speaker at both events.

According to Powelson’s 2014 disclosure, GEE Strategies, an energy and utilities consulting firm, funded his attendance at its Energy Leadership Forum in Falls Church, Virginia. Emails recently uncovered by UtilitySecrets, a joint watchdog project by the Energy & Policy Institute and Center for Media & Democracy, indicate that GEE Strategies has close ties to the Edison Electric Institute, which funded the firm’s Energy Leadership Forum meeting last year.

Other emails show that Edison Electric Institute invited Powelson to speak at its board’s winter meeting in January this year. The meeting was held in Palm Beach, Florida. Also in 2017, Powelson served as president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC).   

The Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission considers gifts and reimbursements for travel, lodging, and hospitality as different categories, requiring public officials to report them separately.

Reached for comment, a FERC spokesperson told DeSmog that Commissioner Powelson followed all applicable Pennsylvania state rules with regard to travel and reimbursement while he was a member of the public utility commission (PUC). The spokesperson added:

For the meetings that you listed, he was a speaker or a panelist. In those roles, Commissioner Powelson’s participation was a customary and necessary part of the performance of his duties, and reimbursement was not a gift to him or the PUC

The 2017 EEI meeting, which he attended as a speaker and in his capacity as President of NARUC, has not yet been filed because it is still 2017. It will be on the 2017 listings when those are all filed.”

Powelson’s “jihad” Remark   

Embed from Getty Images

Powelson is one of four Trump nominees to FERC, which shrank this summer to only one commissioner, Cheryl LaFleur. The pipeline industry recently boosted its pressure on the administration to restore the commission’s quorum, absent since February, which is required to approve interstate oil and gas projects. Powelson and Neil Chatterjee, a former energy policy advisor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), were sworn in last week. Two other nominees — Richard Glick and Kevin McIntyre — are pending Senate approval.

Opponents of fossil fuel infrastructure protested Powelson and Chatterjee’s nominations, arguing that the two are likely to maintain FERC’s bias toward pipeline buildup.

They pointed out that during a gas industry conference in March this year, Powelson described protests by anti-pipeline activists as a “jihad.”        

The jihad has begun,” Powelson told the audience. “At the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission groups actually shown up at commissioners’ homes to make sure we don’t get this gas to market. How irresponsible is that?”

Powelson later apologized for that particular phrasing, saying “I recently made an inappropriate choice of words while characterizing the actions of a small group of individuals who engage in threatening and disruptive behavior.”

As a FERC commissioner, Powelson will participate in various decisions to permit and approve interstate pipeline projects, which includes taking into account public comment as well as impacts to private landowners and the environment.

Main image: Screen shot of Robert Powelson during his FERC nomination hearing. Credit: U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, public domain