By Ros Krasny
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans and some Democrats criticized Ron Binz in a hearing on Tuesday on his nomination to lead a key U.S. energy regulatory agency as being non mainstream because his views on the nation's energy future support renewable sources like wind over coal and natural gas.
Chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission from 2007 to 2011 and currently a regulatory consultant, Binz was nominated by President Barack Obama in July to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
His nomination was considered by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Committee in an often contentious three-hour hearing. No date has been set for a vote.
Some conservative and free-market groups have opposed Binz, citing comments that, among other things, natural gas is a "dead end" energy source, and saying Binz would orchestrate a push for renewable energy sources like wind over coal and natural gas.
A bipartisan group of 12 former FERC commissioners are among those who have spoken in favor of Binz.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the committee's ranking Republican, ended the hearing by saying that she "reluctantly" could not support the nomination. The Alaskan said she was "not convinced" that Binz's views were compatible with FERC's mission.
Binz would replace Jon Wellinghoff, a Nevada attorney who remains with FERC pending the confirmation of a successor. If Wellinghoff were to leave, the normally five-member commission would be left in a 2-2 tie between Democrats and Republicans.
In the hearing, Oregon's Ron Wyden, the Democratic committee chair, repeatedly reminded his colleagues of the limits of FERC's policy-setting mandate.
FERC, which has about 1,500 employees, regulates elements of the U.S. natural gas, electricity, oil and hydropower industries, including the reliability of the electricity grid and approval of liquefied natural gas export terminals.
"FERC has no authority to regulate coal," said Wyden.
Binz termed himself a "pragmatic problem solver" who would "work across regional, philosophical and party lines to make regulatory decisions that work best for our nation's energy consumers and market participants."
FERC's role should be to help build a energy infrastructure in the United States that all fuels can access, Binz said, adding, "FERC is fuel neutral."
"FERC will not have a direct role in encouraging any particular resource," he said. "I think FERC's role is to ensure that whatever energy fuel future this country finds itself in, we have prepared the infrastructure for it ... it's not to promote any particular resource."
Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, said comments by Binz in March that the use of natural gas could "dead end" by 2035 because of the need to reduce carbon emissions "were troubling and far outside the mainstream."
"You would be responsible for things that happen well beyond 2035," Barrasso told Binz.
Binz said he was "fully supportive" of developing the nation's gas reserves, added that FERC was not responsible for climate policy and that he had not spoken with the White House about Obama's climate change plan, which was laid out in June.
His private views on "what the U.S. energy future could look like won't affect decisions that need to be made now," Binz said.
Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from the major coal state of West Virginia, said the Obama administration policies are hostile to coal and are taking a toll on his state's economy.
"They're just beating the living daylights out of little West Virginia."
Manchin quizzed Binz about the closure of a number of coal-fired power plants in Colorado while Binz was the top regulator there.
Binz's time at the Colorado commission was marked by battles with Republican state legislators and mining interests when the commission encouraged the state's largest utility, Xcel, to switch to natural gas from coal to power its plants. At least three coal-fired plants have closed in the state since 2009.
Binz responded that he also approved Colorado's largest coal plant. "I would like to see a path forward for coal," he said. "I'm very sympathetic to what you have been saying."
One element of FERC's activities barely touched on during the hearing was the series of high-profile investigations into Wall Street banks' electricity market trading.
FERC has increased the number of staff in its Office of Enforcement to about 200 from about 20 a decade ago, and undertaken major investigations of power market manipulation.
In 2013, the commission has levied $435 million in civil penalties against Barclays Bank and $285 million against JPMorgan Chase & Co. among others.
(This version of the September 17 story corrects paragraph 7 to show that Wellinghoff is from Nevada, not New Mexico.)
(Reporting by Ros Krasny; editing by Marguerita Choy)