A diverse coalition of more than 30 consumer, environmental, and low-income assistance organizations petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on March 7, demanding that the energy regulator create a level playing field for utility ratepayers by founding and funding an Office of Public Participation – as the U.S. Congress directed nearly 40 years ago.
The watchdog group Public Citizen – along with a who’s who of national and state advocates, including the National Consumer Law Center, the Consumer Federation of America, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, The Utility Reform Network, and the Citizens Action Coalition – called on FERC to create an Office of Public Participation, as they say was required by Section 16 USC § 825q–1 of the 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA).
As described in PURPA, the Office of Public Participation would “provide compensation for reasonable attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, and other costs of intervening or participating in any proceeding before the Commission to any person whose intervention or participation substantially contributed to the approval, in whole or in part, of a position advocated by such person. “ The compensation would be conditional on two findings: (1) The proceeding is significant, and (2) Such person’s intervention or participation in such proceeding without receiving compensation constitutes a significant financial hardship to him or her.
Such defrayal of costs is vital, according to Public Citizen, because, the group said, “FERC has evolved into one of the most powerful – but little understood – agencies whose decisions determine the price of electricity, natural gas and oil that consumers pay, as well as impact energy infrastructure siting. The highly technical format and incredible volume of FERC proceedings and dockets overwhelm the limited-resourced capacity of the many organizations that seek to protect consumers’ pocketbooks and the public interest. As a result, important regulatory decisions often lack adequate public participation.”
New funds would not have to be appropriated for the office, the petitioners said, noting that in 1978, FERC relied on Congressional appropriations; but that, since then, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986 has enabled FERC to “collect fees and annual charges in any fiscal year in amounts equal to all of the costs incurred by the commission in that fiscal year.” Therefore, FERC can, itself, now finance not only the Office of Public Participation, they said, but also compensation to interveners or participants in proceedings.
“On a daily basis, decisions and motions in dozens of FERC dockets have profound impacts on energy prices, the environment and the climate,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy program. “Creating an Office of Public Participation will help ensure that the interests of average utility customers and the public at large are represented in these important proceedings.”
“The energy industry spends millions pushing its views at FERC, and metaphorically burying the agency in data, testimony and other massive filings,” said National Consumer Law Center Senior Energy Attorney Charles Harak. “It’s time that the consumers’ voice is also heard, just as Congress intended.”
The petition was submitted just a few days after FERC accepted revisions to the PJM Open Access Transmission Tariff (Docket No. ER16-561-000) on February 29 to provide a mechanism for funding the organization, Consumer Advocates of the PJM States (CAPS), effective March 1, via a new charge on customers’ bills.