Phillips, a Democrat and chair of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia, has “extensive background in the areas of public utility regulation, bulk power system reliability, and corporate governance,” the White House said in a statement.
Phillips would bring FERC to a 3-2 Democratic majority for the first time in Biden’s administration, a change that could help the president in his push to put the country on a path to decarbonize the power grid by 2035 and the wider economy by 2050. The role requires confirmation in the Senate, which is considered likely with Democrats having a thin majority in the chamber.
The independent panel of the Department of Energy has long had a low-key profile and was mainly known for approving natural gas pipelines and export terminals for liquefied natural gas, or LNG.
That is beginning to change.
In March, FERC assessed a gas pipeline’s contribution to climate change for the first time. While the commission ended up approving the project, the move paved the way for further examination of the climate impact of future pipelines.
FERC decisions on climate that delay or nix projects could face challenges in the courts.
This August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that FERC must reanalyze permits for two Texas LNG terminals, saying FERC’s previous permits did not look closely enough at the climate and environmental justice implications of the projects.
U.S. Representative Sean Casten, an Illinois Democrat, has declared this season to be “hot FERC summer” in speeches referencing pop singer Megan Thee Stallion.
Casten recently introduced legislation to push FERC on climate, including a bill ordering it to initiate a rulemaking on electricity transmission planning between regions, which could help get power from renewable energy projects in rural areas to cities.
Phillips would replace Neil Chatterjee, a Republican who once worked for Senator Mitch McConnell of coal-producing Kentucky. Late in his term Chatterjee promoted putting a price on carbon emissions. Chatterjee left FERC on Aug. 30.
FERC also regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, oil and gas. Phillips could also play a role in implementing mandatory cyber standards for the oil and gas industry, in the aftermath of a cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline in May that crimped fuel supplies for several days on the East Coast.
The two other Democrats on the panel, Richard Glick, the chair, and Allison Clements have called for such standards, which the power sector is already held to.
Phillips could also work closely with Montina Cole, who Glick appointed in May as the panel’s first person to oversee environmental justice. Cole works to ensure that projects approved by FERC do not unfairly hurt historically marginalized communities with pollution.