Maryland Gov. Wes Moore Friday shook up top leadership of the Maryland Public Service Commission and nominated two new members to the agency overseeing gas and electric utilities in the state and shaping Maryland’s clean energy ambitions. The nominations now await confirmation by the state senate.
Frederick Hoover, currently with the Office of People’s Counsel, was named as one of the two new members the Moore administration appointed to the commission. He previously served as director of the Maryland Energy Administration under Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat who held the office between 1995 and 2003.
“The governor has submitted my name to the Maryland state senate for appointment to the Public Service Commission,” Hoover confirmed to Inside Climate News, adding that he will share his plans for the agency once he is confirmed.
Juan Alvarado, a senior official at the American Gas Association—lobbying arm of the natural gas industry—was also named as a PSC member. An economist by training, Alvarado has previously worked at the Maryland Public Service Commission in various roles.
Kim Coble, executive director of the nonprofit League of Conservation Voters, said that Hoover is former board chair of her organization whose “experience in clean energy and his commitment to addressing climate change will be valuable assets to the PSC.”
Coble said that Moore’s decision to appoint a representative of the gas industry to the commission “could present a challenge to the PSC’s efforts to advance utility and transportation services while also respecting the significant and unique role the commission plays in advancing the state’s climate goals and specifically the governor’s 100 percent clean energy goal.”
A spokesman for Moore said Hoover and Alvarado bring decades of experience to the administration and their addition will provide a wealth of knowledge for the Public Service Commission going forward. “The Administration is confident that these individuals will work tirelessly to ensure safe, reliable, and economic public utility and transportation service to the citizens of Maryland,” the spokesman said in a statement.
Environmental advocates have called on Gov. Moore to expedite the appointment of new members to the five-seat Maryland Public Service Commission, a body which quoted climate change deniers last year and remains comprised entirely of commissioners appointed by former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
After taking office last month, Moore withdrew 48 of the recess appointments Hogan submitted to the state Senate last July, clearing the way for three new PSC appointees. Moore’s picks will presumably be more sympathetic to goals contained in the state’s new renewable energy legislation, which requires a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2006 levels by 2031 and net-zero by 2045.
The latest collision between Democrats seeking more progress on renewable energy and utility regulators comfortable with reliance on natural gas came at a state Senate hearing last month. At the hearing, state Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore) grilled Lisa Smith, the PSC’s director of legislative affairs, about a court filing last fall in which the PSC quoted two well-known climate change skeptics, one of which stated “the only ‘clean’ energy is no energy. Once one’s activist inclinations are put aside, solar and wind generation are quite ‘dirty.’”
Smith explained that the brief had been filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court by a staff attorney and had not been reviewed by the commission. Calling the statements of climate skepticism “unfortunate words,” Smith explained: “That’s how it went out. The commission did not review it unfortunately.”
“So, you’re saying that this does not represent the view of the commission,” Washington asked, visibly upset. She added that it was “very disturbing” to know that a brief filed in court “by an agency that we have empowered to protect the consumers of the state of Maryland was not reviewed.”
“I would echo that point,” said Sen. Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery), who is chairman of the Education, Energy and Environment committee. He termed the episode “unusual,” given that “we are talking about an appeal in the courtroom situation.”
The case was filed in September by the Office of People’s Counsel, an independent state agency that represents the interests of utility ratepayers before the PSC. The people’s counsel had previously asked the PSC to fine Washington Gas for making false claims about the “environmental benefits” of natural gas on bills it sent to customers.
When the PSC refused to sanction the utility, the people’s counsel asked the Montgomery County court to order the commission to do so. The court refused, as well, and the matter is now before the state Court of Special Appeals.
In an interview last week, Tori Leonard, the PSC’s communications director, provided a different account for how the brief quoting climate deniers was filed, noting that references to the deniers’ statements were contained only in a footnote. “The General Counsel approved a version of the brief without the footnote, but a draft version containing the footnote was filed in error,” Leonard explained in an email.
She said that the footnote was only meant to serve as an example of the types of issues and arguments that could have arisen if the commission had fined Washington Gas for making false claims about the benefits of natural gas.
The commission “typically does not review briefs before they are filed in court,” Leonard added. She did not elaborate on why the PSC officials had not provided this explanation during the Senate hearing in January.
The Senate hearing has since reverberated in policy and advocacy circles, with questions and concerns being raised by the state lawmakers and environmentalists about whether the PSC officials are exercising adequate oversight of agency operations, given its critical role in regulating Maryland’s utilities and the transition to renewable energy.
“It makes me question if they have fulfilled their other regulatory responsibilities,” Sen. Washington said in an interview, adding that she is excited by the prospects of three new Moore appointees taking control of the commission.
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David Lapp, who heads the Office of People’s Counsel, said the judge in Montgomery County who denied his motion to force the PSC to discipline Washington Gas relied on statements made in the PSC legal brief that “the commission is now publicly disavowing.”
“If the commission had addressed [Washington Gas’s] marketing, as it should have, it most certainly would have found that customers are deceived by the utility’s green marketing messages,” Lapp said. “Fossil fuels are not ’clean,’ but contribute to climate change, and it’s the commission’s responsibility to make sure customers are not misinformed by their state-regulated utility monopoly.”
The Office of People’s Counsel has now been joined in its appeal before the Court of Special Appeals by the nonprofit Sierra Club. “We are confident that the law is on our side and the appellate court will agree,” Lapp said in a statement.
The commission’s admission that it did not endorse the legal argument it presented to the court also drew sharp criticism from environmentalists and advocates.
“First, they quoted climate denial in an official brief filed with an appeals court and then publicly stated that they didn’t review it before filing it. Both actions clearly undermine the credibility of the commission and undermine its regulatory role,” said Jamie DeMarco, Maryland director of the nonprofit coalition Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
He said that the PSC’s filing before the court influenced a decision, which is allowing a fossil fuel company to spread disinformation about natural gas as a clean energy alternative to electric power. “I have never seen a state agency that misrepresented its position in the court and then failed to correct the record, even after publicly admitting that they did so,” DeMarco said.
Susan Miller, senior attorney with the nonprofit EarthJustice, said it would be interesting to see if the PSC brought the same argument to the Court of Special Appeals that they have publicly disowned. “That would mean that either they are lying to the General Assembly or they misrepresented their position in the court. But I don’t envision them doing that at this juncture,” she said.
Miller, who filed a petition in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals on behalf of the Sierra Club, said that the PSC’s representative incorrectly claimed that its court filing did not represent the commission’s views. “It was filed in the court as the commission’s brief and presented the PSC’s position to the court. And it was not withdrawn or corrected,” she said.
The appellate court is yet to issue the schedule for hearing the case.