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Pat Packs a Punch

FERC's new chairman runs roughshod over a reeling industry.

Fortnightly Magazine - January 15 2002

Docket No. RM01-12

The defining moment came late in the morning, Wednesday, Dec. 19, at the last meeting of the year for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

That's when the TV cameraman spied former FERC chair Betsy Moler sitting in the audience, and trained his lens on her. As she looked up, she saw her image staring back from the flat-screen monitors scattered about the hearing room. But her shoulders were slumping. The cameraman could not know that the commissioners up at the head table had just stabbed her in the heart.

By a vote of 3-1, the FERC had crowned the Midwest Independent System Operator-MISO-as belle of the ball. In so doing, it scorned the proposed Alliance Regional Transmission Organization-the group to which Moler had devoted so many hours, filing briefs and business plans. So MISO would become the Midwest RTO. For Alliance, there was nothing to do but to go home and soak in a bath of $100 million or more in lost startup costs.

When the meeting broke for lunch, I saw the MISO's leading lawyers, Sheila Hollis and partner Stephen Teichler, leave the room and walk down the hall through the crowd. They were shaking hands and accepting congratulations-like gladiators leaving the arena. Meanwhile, back in the hearing room, FERC senior staffer Kevin Kelly came over to speak quietly with Ms. Moler-perhaps to offer a condolence. He had worked with her back when she was at FERC.

Commissioner Linda Breathitt dissented. She complained how the commission only a year earlier had encouraged Alliance to go forward by issuing conditional approvals. William Massey, however, had voted with the majority. But as a FERC veteran who once served under Moler, he took pains to urge the audience not to blame him for the disaster-he had opposed Alliance from early on, he said.

(Spin doctors take note: Since the departure of former chairman Curt Hébert, both Breathitt and Massey have seen their fortunes turn, but in opposite directions. Massey, who sparred endlessly with Hébert, now works under Wood-an activist chairman more attuned to his views. Breathitt, who sided sometimes with Hébert and his laissez-faire stance, now finds herself a bit isolated on this new commission.)

All of this left it to chairman Pat Wood to put the thing in context. He reminded folks that he took no part in the prior Alliance decisions. No need for him to express remorse. Later, however, he seemed eager to paint himself as a sensitive guy-he said he had been up late at home the night before, changing a diaper, and had spotted a loose page from a draft FERC order, lying about the floor, behind the crib.

Don't be fooled. This new regulator may speak softly but he carries a big stick. Like a Texas Tornado, the new FERC Chairman is kickin' dirt and takin' names.

Let me remind you that I no longer lay claim to this column. I appear here only as a guest of Richard Stavros, my successor, who took the editor's