WASHINGTON – Ron Binz was grilled by a Senate panel Tuesday for his prediction that the natural gas industry would collapse without global warming safeguards as well as an unprecedented lobbying effort by special interest groups to assist the Coloradan’s confirmation to chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
Binz defended his record to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that will first vote on his nomination before it reaches the Senate floor, and said his comments about natural gas were taken out of context.
In March, Binz told an Edison Foundation event that without carbon capture and storage ability, natural gas would reach a “dead end” by the year 2035.
Binz told the committee he meant to say that capturing and storing carbon emissions would benefit the industry.
“I should have stopped there and not said ‘dead end,’” Binz said.
Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, said he found Binz’s comments “troubling and far outside the mainstream.”
“To be clear, you are saying that the future of natural gas, not just coal, but natural gas depends on carbon capture and sequestration—a technology that is not currently available, not currently economically viable, not commercially viable— and may never be for natural gas,” Barrasso said.
It’s common practice for an administration to help its nominees prepare for the rigorous confirmation process, and the FERC position that oversees the interstate transmission of electricity, oil and gas are not usually controversial.
However The Washington Times reported that Binz coordinated with alternative energy officials and a well-connected public relations firm to gain an inside track on the confirmation process.
Emails obtained by a free-market organization and shared with the newspaper show those involved include the Energy Foundation, which promotes the use of alternative fuels, Obama administration officials, the Democratic public relations firm VennSquared, and lobbyists from different firms that used to work for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
“When the nomination came up, I was glad to accept some assistance dealing with the press,” Binz told the Senate committee.
“I have hired no one, I’m paying no one, I am a solo practitioner, and I don’t even have administrative support in my business,” Binz said.
“As far as I know, I’ve had no contact with (VennSquared) since July 15. In fact, I asked them to stop sending me material. I did not want to coordinate with them,” Binz said.
However, the emails show the groups examined documents before Binz submitted the papers to the Senate, and that meetings with lawmakers were discussed. Other newspaper accounts say Binz denied coordinating with VennSquared.
The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said she was disturbed the coordination might set a precedent for future confirmation battles, and suggested Binz was not completely forthcoming about the behind-the-scenes action.
“I’m sure you can see the concerns that I had when you sat in my office and assured me that there was no coordination with anyone outside of FERC, and then to read a series of emails … directly contradicting what I had been told,” Murkowski said.
“I appreciate your explanation, but I think it does speak to the issue I have raised, which is insuring that the FERC is absolutely independent and that the leadership at the top remains so,” Murkowski said.
Binz apologized to Murkowski and agreed to meet with her again to explain his role in the unusual campaign, which he agreed was an “unfortunate situation if this is the new normal.”
Critics of Binz’s nomination are concerned he will use the office to implement Obama’s global warming initiative and show favoritism to alternative energy plans.
“This nominee will attempt to strike a moderate pose in confirmation hearings, only to reveal his more radical side once he’s safely in the job,” said Dustin Zvonek, Colorado state director of Americans for Prosperity. “But senators shouldn’t be mistaken or mislead: Ron Binz is an extreme environmentalist who only masquerades as a regulator.”
Zvonek also criticized Colorado’s Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet’s “fawning” introduction of Binz at the hearing, and said that instead of asking tough questions on behalf of American consumers, blew “wet kisses like some Obama administration doormats.”
Udall and Bennet praised Binz’s ability to broker agreements on energy matters with stakeholders and regulators.
“He was known as fair and impartial during his years of public service in Colorado,” Udall said.
“In Colorado, Ron was known as a consensus builder, he was a pragmatist, he was a go to person when problems demanded solutions. Our country needs more consensus builders like Ron,” Udall said.
Added Bennet: “Ron’s long experience, combined with his very pragmatic temperament, makes him well-suited to serve as the next chairman of FERC.”
Several national groups including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, National Taxpayers Union and the Independence Institute, said in a letter to the Senate panel that electricity rates in Colorado doubled the rate of inflation during Binz’s tenure.
The groups said Binz encouraged the shutdown of the Fort St. Vrain nuclear power station when he lead Colorado’s Office of Consumer Counsel, and struck a contentious $1.3 billion deal with Xcel Energy to shut down coal plants and convert them to natural gas.
“Today, Binz opposes natural gas as well, calling it a ‘dead end,’” the groups said.
“If coal, nuclear, and natural gas—the sources that provided nearly 87 percent of our electricity in 2012— are all ‘dead ends,’ how will Americans get affordable, reliable electricity?” the groups asked.
Binz defended his actions and said it lead to a balanced use of coal, natural gas and renewable energy, “without a significant consumer rate impact.”
“You might think from all the rhetoric that’s been written about me, that I personally went out, and with a sledge hammer, closed coal plants in Colorado,” Binz said.