After enabling law was passed in 1978, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC") is finally now working to set up a new Office of Public Participation ("OPP"). FERC conducted an all-day workshop on April 16, 2021 to hear comments and input from five different panels for this new office. I was thrilled to be nominated to be on the first panel from the perspective of “Affected Communities”.
RTO Insider covered the FERC Workshop and included some of my more poignant comments in their article including:
Steep Learning Curve
“The hurdles faced by the public in most FERC proceedings are daunting and the learning curve is very steep, said Kin Gee, president of New Jersey grassroots group Consumers Helping Affect Regulation of Gas and Electric (CHARGE).
“The practice where the applicant or petitioner is responsible for the outreach and controls the timing and information made available to the public is fundamentally flawed [and] epitomizes letting a fox guard the hen house,” Gee said.”
The full text of my prepared remarks is shown below.
Good morning Chairman Glick and Commissioners. Thank you for the opportunity to be on this panel. For the record, my name is Kin Gee. I serve as the President of a grassroots group in New Jersey called CHARGE – Consumers Helping Affect Regulation of Gas & Electric.
The comments I make today are from the perspective of a landowner that would have been directly impacted by an infrastructure development as well as a consumer advocate seeking to be the voice of New Jersey’s three million individual energy consumers.
The Commission has heard a lot about gas pipeline projects. However, the Commission’s rules and regulation of electric transmission, especially the electric transmission incentive policy, are no less impactful and, arguably, no less harmful to the public.
In my specific intervenor case, the utility company filed a petition for a 230 kV transmission line under the stated reason to address a reliability standard contingency. However, our electric expert witness presented an alternative non-transmission solution that fully addressed the issue at about 1/3 of the cost that was never even explored and without any of the collateral damage to the community from property devaluation. The judge in the case agreed with us and called the utility company’s proposal the equivalent of using an elephant gun to kill a gnat and denied the petition.
This example highlights the fact that public engagement is critically important. It also highlights that most utility and energy companies are, in fact, for-profit enterprises with inherent conflicts of interest that benefit management and shareholders, typically at the expense of the public. The desire and pressure to increase their rate base and to increase their earnings have led to the proliferation of gas pipelines and electric transmission projects that have burdened ratepayers but do not add to system reliability in a meaningful way.
The hurdles faced by the public in most of the proceedings are daunting. The learning curve is very steep. Utility and energy companies have (1) greater financial resources, (2) the luxury of relying on their own employees, (3) greater expertise, and (4) access to relevant data and information. In stark contrast, the public and intervenors do not have the resources, experience, expertise, nor access to relevant information.
The practice where the applicant or petitioner is responsible for the outreach and controls the timing and information made available to the public is fundamentally flawed. This practice epitomizes letting a fox guard the henhouse. When utilities have sole control of public education, it can lead to the dissemination of self-serving, deceptive, false, and misleading information. Even worse are eminent domain overreach and predatory practices of land agents that preyed upon landowners who have not been made aware of their rights and options.
I urge the Commission to keep its consumer service mission in mind while creating the Office of Public Participation. I offer the following recommendations:
1. The Director and senior staff of the OPP should have real and practical experience working directly with consumers. The OPP should be adequately staffed with not only process experts but also subject matter experts. The mandate of the OPP is and should be to represent and be responsive to the public affected by the Commission’s actions.
2. The OPP must be the entity that is responsible for the public outreach and engagement for each proceeding. This outreach should include education and workshops for potential intervenors. Information provided should include a summary of relevant information including the scope of the proposal, the process including a timeline, and the rights of affected parties in “easy to read” language. The OPP should also provide, upon request, a list of all affected parties who may be eligible to be intervenors.
3. The Commission should consider creating an advisory board for the OPP. However, it should ensure that members of the advisory board should not be from the utility/energy sector, groups that are significantly funded by the utility/energy sector, or by special interest/political groups.
4. The genesis of Section 319 and the OPP is to give equal footing to the public and intervenors. Intervenor funding will be an important component of public participation. I believe priority funding should be directed to individuals and community groups who would not be able to participate without it. I encourage the Commission to review and adopt the best practices from state programs including from the State of California.
I look forward to the interactive session and answering any questions that you may have. Thank you.