Energy CEOs say investor money and jobs at risk because FERC isn't functional

Key Points
  • Energy CEOs are warning if FERC is not functional by August break, the private investment dollars for these projects might be gone.
  • CEOs want to "get infrastructure development back on track" after FERC cannot approve new pipelines.
Construction of the Gulf Coast Project pipeline, part of the Keystone XL pipeline, in Prague, Okla.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Rebuilding America's infrastructure is one of the pillars in President Donald Trump's plan to generate jobs. But a lack of sitting commissioners at the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) has sidelined up to 15 energy infrastructure projects valued between $15 billion and $25 billion and an estimated 75,000 jobs.

Energy CEOs are warning if FERC is not functional by August break, the private investment dollars for these projects might be gone.

The agency normally has a five-commissioner panel, but has only one currently, Cheryl LaFleur, who is acting chair. Two others are awaiting a vote on their nomination by the full Senate, and another could be nominated soon. Without at least three commissioners, the FERC cannot conduct business, and it hasn't had that quorum since February.

"These natural gas pipeline projects don't need federal dollars," said Jeff Bruner, President of Iroquois Pipeline (a Connecticut-based pipeline operating company), and vice chairman of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America said. "With only one member currently, FERC cannot approve new pipelines, and therefore infrastructure development is halted. We need to get infrastructure development back on track."

Right now, Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson await a full Senate vote. Both were approved 20 to 3 by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on June 6. Last week, President Trump announced he would nominate Richard Glick, the general counsel of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to another vacant seat.

Dan Brouillette, deputy secretary of energy nominee for U.S. President Donald Trump, from left, Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson, nominees to be a members of the Federal
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Once Glick's paperwork is in he goes before the Senate Energy Committee and, if approved, he would then have a full Senate vote for confirmation.

Time is running out for FERC to approve projects before Congress goes away on August break. While the regular open monthly meeting is set on the calendar for July 20, if there is no quorum, the meeting will be canceled. FERC has canceled every monthly meeting since it lost its quorum in February.

The commission doesn't meet in August, so FERC might not meet next until late September. FERC tells CNBC it is up to the discretion of the chairman, once quorum is restored, if the commission would approve projects outside of its scheduled public meetings.

CNBC reached out to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office inquiring when a full vote for Chatterjee and Powelson might be scheduled and was told there is "no scheduling announcements at this point."

Energy CEOs say the lack of a quorum at FERC means the industry is slowing down and putting an unnecessary drag on the economy. "This is sidelining billions of dollars in private capital otherwise poised to put thousands of Americans to work expanding and improving our nation's energy delivery system." Said Bill Yardley, President, Gas Transmission and Midstream, Enbridge.

Closing Bell Exchange: Financials, energy will come back into play
Closing Bell Exchange: Financials, energy will come back into play

Enbridge's $2 billion NEXUS Gas Transport project is just one of the many projects sidelined because of the lack of quorum.

"The NEXUS Gas Transmission project alone would drive $830 million in economic activity and support nearly 7,000 good-paying construction jobs," Yardley said.

Gerry Anderson Chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, which also has a stake in the NEXUS pipeline, said the quickest and easiest thing Washington could do to unleash investments in infrastructure would be for the Senate to immediately confirm the pending FERC nominees. "It's rare for Washington to have the opportunity to have such a direct and immediately positive impact on the economy – but this is one of those occasions."

Christi Tezak, the managing director of research at Clear View Energy Partners, says many of the jobs affected are temporary construction jobs. "The longer we lack a quorum, the more impact accumulates. I see three upcoming pipes that if not approved this summer would add another $10B to that total and more jobs."

A White House spokesperson said in a statement that political maneuvering was to blame, citing Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat. "For the past six months, Minority Leader Schumer has deliberately run an unprecedented campaign of obstruction against the President's nominees—and it is the American people who are being hurt. These nominations have been sent to the Senate and now it is in their hands to confirm the nominees as expeditiously as possible, in order for the FERC to work on these important issues and help grow the economy."

FERC's quorum disappeared in February, after President Trump named Commissioner Cheryl A. LaFleur as acting chairman, leading to the resignation of then-Chairman Commissioner Norman C. Bay.

In May 8, President Trump said he planned to nominate Chatterjee and Powelson, both Republicans, to FERC. It is a longstanding tradition in the Senate that confirmations are done in bipartisan pairs. Because both Chatterjee and Powelson are Republican nominees, a full Senate vote cannot go to the floor.

The Senate must wait until the paperwork for Richard Glick, a Democrat. Senate Insiders say the White House's delay in submitting nominees is the only reason why there has been no quorum at FERC.

Oil prices sink as US drilling ramps up
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Senator Schumer addressed the White House's comments on the Senate floor. "I understand the White House is complaining about the pace of nominations, citing the obstruction of Senate Democrats. But if the White House is looking for the cause of the delay, they need only look in the mirror."

Other major projects that also require a quorum for approval include $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. And the $1 billion PennEast pipeline in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

FERC staff is scheduled to issue the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on July 21. If the final EIS is delivered on July 21, FERC will then have until Oct. 19 to deliver its final approval of the project which would require a quorum.

Correction: Energy CEOs are concerned about investor money and jobs being at risk because the FERC isn't functional. An earlier headline misstated the issue the CEOs were addressing. An estimated 75,000 jobs have been sidelined by a lack of sitting commissioners at the FERC. An earlier version misstated the number.