How a Pro-Coal Republican Policymaker Became a Clean Energy Champion

By Julia Pyper, Host and Producer, Political Climate

When President Trump appointed Neil Chatterjee to the Federal Energy and Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2017, the environmental community was worried. As a former energy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, onlookers expected a pro-coal agenda to define Chatterjee’s term as a regulator.  Despite maintaining sympathy for coal communities struggling through the energy transition, Chatterjee says he’s “very bullish on the growth of renewable energy.”  Chatterjee told the Political Climate podcast in a recent interview. “Looking for conservative, market-based solutions to accommodating the energy transition has been my focus throughout my tenure at the commission.” 

Why This Matters: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) oversees the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil, as well as natural gas and hydropower projects. While it’s a lesser-known government agency, FERC has immense power to shape the country’s response to climate change. Chatterjee’s recent votes in favor of policies that benefit distributed energy resources and expand carbon pricing are examples of his support for decarbonizing the economy and providing consumers with clean energy solutions through market-based measures. That makes him a very rare Republican in Trump’s party.

Order 2222: FERC Order No. 2222 is a policy aimed at opening up the nation’s wholesale electricity markets to distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar, batteries and electric vehicles. The order gives energy companies the ability to group these low-carbon resources together and compete with traditional fossil fuel power plants to meet the country’s electricity needs. Commissioner Chatterjee voted in favor of Order 2222, which could have a profound impact on scaling-up clean energy technologies. 

 “I don’t think I’m hyperbolic when I say that I think 10 years from now we may look back and say FERC Order 2222 … was the most significant action that FERC could have taken to contribute to the fight against climate change and carbon mitigation,” Chatterjee told Political Climate. 

Carbon Pricing: FERC commissioners determined this fall that the agency has the legal authority to implement a carbon price if brought forward by a regional grid operator. New York grid operators have crafted a proposal to put a price on carbon that would make fossil fuels more expensive and effectively prioritize electricity coming from wind, solar, nuclear power and other zero-carbon resources. FERC’s decision to oversee regional carbon pricing proposals means that most of America could eventually be covered by a carbon pricing scheme, even if Congress refuses to pass one.

Demoted: President Trump demoted Chatterjee from the chairman position at FERC this fall, which Chatterjee believes was punishment for his pro-climate and clean energy policy decisions. Chatterjee remains at the energy agency and said he plans to stay there through his term, which ends in June 2021. He will work along with four other members, for a total of two Democrats and three Republicans.  Chatterjee told Political Climate that, “I don’t think my views evolved so much as it took me time to get adjusted from partisan legislative aide to independent regulator.”  He went on to say, “If I can put a bipartisan stamp on some of these things that I think are important to the energy transition, I actually think that is more critical than me leaving,” noting that bipartisan energy policies tend to be more durable. 

Go Deeper: Listen to Political Climate’s interview with Commissioner Chatterjee to learn more about how this pro-coal Republican policymaker became a clean energy champion. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get podcasts! 

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