Now is the Time for a Public Participation Office at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)

April 27, 2021 | 9:22 am
Joseph Daniel
Former Contributor

Long ago, Congress gave the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) authorization to form the Office of Public Participation. Such an office would help serve as a platform to help ensure that the independent agency would hear from and make decisions informed by the public. Specifically, communities that are directly affected by the construction of energy infrastructure and those of us that pay for it once FERC approves it.

Previous Chairs of the agency balked at funding the office. That all changed when Rich Glick was named Chairman and he directed newly appointed Commissioner Alisson Clement to lead the effort to form the new office. As was noted by UCS at the time, “This truly is a once in a lifetime chance for reform in a very important government agency.

On April 23, UCS provided a full set of written comments to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) as part of that agency’s request to solicit feedback on the formation of an Office of Public Participation. Earlier in the week, I had the chance to speak at one of FERC’s listening sessions. Here is a transcript of what I said:

Hello, my name is Joseph Daniel, I’m a Sr. Analyst and Manager, Electricity Markets at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). UCS is a science advocacy organization that is comprised of hundreds of experts in topics including the bulk power system. We also house a “Science Network” which is a group of thousands of academics and experts in various fields. Our experts, both in-house and through our science network provide objective, independent, and non-partisan analysis of complicated systems to help better inform public policy and decision making.

UCS has a long-established expertise on technical issues facing FERC and the wholesale markets, and also the stakeholder processes that take place at ISOs and RTOs. For example, UCS has been a voting member of NEPOOL, the FERC sanctioned stakeholder advisory group of ISO-NE for the past 21 years.

UCS has successfully and regularly facilitated Science Network experts in providing public comments at state-level regulatory agencies, like Public Utility Commissions and Air Quality Boards, as well as providing comments to federal agencies like the EPA. However, FERC’s process for providing public comment is more complicated and as a direct result, we haven’t been able to facilitate those connections. For those that are paid to do this work, or provide comments on a regular basis, these few extra steps are not an insurmountable barrier, but for others, it’s everything.

Take these very listening sessions as an example, the short timeline between announcing and holding the OPP workshop and listening sessions did not allow for much time to identify appropriate experts, to reach out to them, and help them prepare oral or written comments.

If an organization as well-resourced and experienced as UCS struggles to make those connections, imagine how it feels for those going it alone. Or groups that don’t have our experience or resources.

UCS has firsthand experience benefiting through meaningful engagement with groups, like consumer advocates, environmental justice communities, and tribal representatives. Our own analysis and priorities have been improved because we managed to create spaces or find spaces where we could listen to those groups.

FERC is charged with establishing “rates, terms, and conditions of service that are just and reasonable and not unduly discriminatory or preferential.”  FERC cannot possibly expect to do that job without all the facts. Without information from local communities. The best possible way for FERC to accomplish its mission is to set up a well-funded office of public participation with ample resources and intervenor funding.

The statutory text of the Federal Power Act (FPA) explicitly grants the Commission discretion to provide intervenor funding and the Commission should do so. The Office of Public Participation could effectively alleviate the barriers faced by traditionally under-represented voices before the Commission by providing intervenor compensation for those parties that would otherwise face financial hardship for their participation. Further, in order to meet the spirit of the OPP to hear from typically under-represented voices in Commission decision-making, intervenor funding must be responsive to several key principles, specifically: Accessibility, Transparency, Certainty, Inclusiveness, Workability, Efficiency, and Adequacy.  

UCS agrees with those other commentators that have called for the primary function and scope of OPP to be to facilitate the participation of individuals and or groups that are representing the public interest and have traditionally been under-represented in FERC decision-making processes. UCS recommends to the commission that one of OPP’s additional functions be to serve as a source of independent information, like fact sheets and “how-to” guides. OPP should be proactive and it should also remain policy-neutral and project neutral. UCS doesn’t believe that the office itself should play the role of a consumer advocate or actively intervene on behalf of the public. Though it should be allowed to provide the commission with information and analysis on how commission rulings/proposals might impact the ability of the public to participate in proceedings. UCS believes that by designing the function and scope of the OPP as we outline above, the Office will help the commission achieve its mission.

UCS recommends that FERC set up OPP in such a way that the newly formed office retains a certain level of autonomy and independence. This should include an advisory board with regular check-ins to ensure that the office is maximizing its effectiveness. To best achieve the functions outlined above, OPP should have field staff. OPP staff should include legal and technical experts and also outreach specialists and multi-lingual staff (or at the very least, resources to produce materials in languages other than English). In our full comments, which we look forward to submitting later this week, UCS offers some specific recommendations on the staffing structure and size of OPP. And recommendations on how to use equity assessment tools. We also further elaborate on many of the topics we’ve touched on here.

Thank you for your time.