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Manchin won't support Obama energy nominee

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sen. Joe Manchin announced Wednesday that he will not support President Obama's nominee to be the nation's top energy regulator, because of concerns that he would be hostile to coal and natural gas producers.

Manchin's announcement leaves the nominee, Ron Binz, with no clear path to confirmation.

Without Manchin's support, Binz would need the vote of at least one Republican on the Senate Energy Committee -- an unlikely proposition -- in order to progress to a confirmation vote by the full Senate.

Binz, a longtime energy regulator in Colorado, is Obama's nominee to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee.

FERC, an independent agency, regulates interstate transmission and sales of electricity, reviews mergers of electricity companies and monitors energy markets, among other things. FERC does not approve construction of power plants or regulate retail electricity sales.

Manchin said a main reason he would not support Binz is because of Binz's past work in transforming Colorado's coal-fired power plants to natural gas.

"As I looked at Mr. Binz's past performance, we just disagree," Manchin said Wednesday. "He's ideologically in a position where he believes we should be moving more to a renewable market that's not as reliable.

"I'm for an all-in policy," Manchin said.

Binz's nomination has been the subject of a public relations battle that's nearly unprecedented for the normally obscure FERC chairmanship.

A coalition of 14 conservative and fossil-fuel advocacy groups recently wrote to the Senate Energy Committee opposing Binz's nomination.

"Commissioner Binz apparently believes that regulators should not merely execute the laws, but should usurp the role of the legislative branch and legislate," the groups wrote. "Over his tenure at the Colorado Public Utilties Commission, electricity rates increased at twice the rate of inflation."

The coalition, led by the American Energy Alliance, a group funded by the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, argued that Binz and FERC are "an essential piece of this administration's costly energy vision."

On the other side, 12 former FERC commissioners, appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents, recently wrote to The Wall Street Journal supporting Binz and defending his record in Colorado.

"Mr. Binz is criticized for helping draft, at his governor's request, provisions of new utility legislation in Colorado. The law requires utilities to submit regulatory plans so that coal plants comply with expected Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Mr. Binz's commission implemented the law, issuing a balanced decision that closed older, heavier-emitting coal plants while outfitting newer coal plants with emissions controls," the commissioners wrote.

"Over Republican and Democratic administrations, FERC has judiciously exercised the dual authority Congress has given it. FERC has a long nonpartisan tradition, and Ron Binz fits squarely within that tradition," they wrote.

Manchin said he is concerned that Binz could use FERC to favor other utilities over coal power plants.

"I believe Mr. Binz's record is unacceptable for a FERC chairman," Manchin said in a news release. "I believe that his leadership will threaten the reliability of our electrical grid, irreparably damage the coal industry, cost jobs and impose higher energy costs for hardworking Americans."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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