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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Sound and fury over energy nominee Ron Binz

Ron Binz – President Obama's pick to head an obscure federal agency – has energy insiders drawing battle lines. Is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the next flash point in the debate over US energy?

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Ms. Murkowski, the leading Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Tuesday she opposes Binz's nomination over concerns the nominee was biased against fossil fuels. She cited reports of a public relations firm lobbying on Binz's behalf as a threat to the agency's impartiality.

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Staff Writer

David J. Unger is a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor, covering energy for the Monitor's Energy Voices.

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"We may not have seen an effort like this before, and with good reason," Murkowski said in prepared testimony. "Again, FERC is an independent agency. This kind of paid effort, for and with the cooperation of the nominee, must not become 'the new normal.'" 

Binz finds himself in the hot seat because of comments he made earlier this year downplaying the long-term role of natural gas – a fuel many believe to be a key to US energy security. Moving to the fuel in the near term might be "a good move," Mr. Binz said at a panel in March, but natural gas will "dead end" by 2035 without carbon-capture technology. 

At his hearing Tuesday, Binz walked back those statements, calling natural gas "a terrific fuel [that's] needed right now and may be in the permanent energy mix,” as reported by The Hill. Still, he defended the need to decarbonize gas power as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and said the technology could be developed within 20 years time. 

Natural gas power is a greenhouse-gas emitter but at roughly half the rate of coal. Controversial new drilling techniques have unlocked vast quantities of the gas in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere across the country. It currently makes up about 30 percent of the nation's electricity mix.

Between 2007 and 2011, Binz chaired the Colorado Public Utility Commission where he helped draft a law that bolstered wind and solar development in an effort to cut emissions. The plan also led to the state's largest power company transitioning coal plants to gas plants at ratepayers' expense. 

Binz's supporters say that's exactly the kind of eye towards the future that is needed at FERC.

"This remarkable energy transition has little to do with any plot against Colorado’s coal-fired power plants," Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a sustainability advocacy group based in Boston, wrote in Forbes last month. "It has a lot more to do with economics, smart planning, and prudent risk management.

"Over his 34-year career in energy policy, Binz has developed the skills and the experience to guide the U.S. electric power sector," she added.

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