Politics & Policy

The Unnoticed Consequences of Incompetent Governance

(Photo: Hxdbzxy/Dreamstime)
At least $20 billion worth of energy-infrastructure projects are stalled because of the White House’s failure to fill three bureaucratic vacancies.

Call it bitter irony: While the Trump administration is still trying to figure out how to fund and pass a massive infrastructure bill, at least $20 billion worth of big energy-infrastructure projects — 15 of them in 14 states, all 100 percent privately funded and all holding the potential to create thousands of new construction jobs — are sitting in front of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, awaiting approval.

The commission isn’t simply choosing to stall the projects; it can’t approve them, because it needs a quorum of three commissioners to make an official decision and it’s been operating with only two since the beginning of February, while three empty seats are yet to be filled by President Trump.

This is an unbelievably vivid illustration of how few people around Trump understand the federal government they’ve been tasked with running. Getting three new commissioners confirmed to FERC isn’t sexy, it won’t get talked about on cable news, and it’s less fun than lashing out at the New York Times. But the consequences of failing to do so are real, as the thousands of unemployed manual laborers waiting for pipeline jobs can attest.

Three names have surfaced as likely nominees: Jones Day lawyer Kevin McIntyre, Pennsylvania public utility commissioner Robert Powelson, and Neil Chatterjee, a former adviser to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. The bad news is that none of them have been formally nominated, and no one is quite sure when their nominations might be sent to the Senate for confirmation.

“I think they’re just waiting until they’ve got everyone’s paperwork in order to announce,” says a well-placed Senate GOP source. “No other issues there that I’m aware of.”

This is the risk of putting a man with no governing experience in the White House, allowing him to surround himself with similarly inexperienced subordinates, and pitting said subordinates against one another almost as a matter of course: It appears that not enough people in the Trump’s orbit are attending to the basic, easily accomplished tasks that deserve a Republican administration’s focus.

The largest project comes from Driftwood LNG Pipeline, which has proposed a massive new liquid-natural-gas–export facility and pipelines near Lake Charles, La. The project is slated to cost anywhere from $13 billion to $16 billion and is expected to create approximately 6,400 jobs during construction and 400 permanent ones afterward.

Spire STL Pipeline wants to construct a new 66-mile steel pipeline running from Scott County, Ill., to St. Louis County, Mo. The $220 million project was originally scheduled to begin construction in February and be in service by November.

In the Northeast, Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company wants to expand its transmission system in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and its offshore natural-gas–pipeline system in New Jersey and New York. This would require building new compressor units in Chester and Lancaster Counties, Pennsylvania. The project is scheduled to cost nearly $1 billion and was originally scheduled to be in service by December 2019.

Then there are the projects that aren’t even being submitted to FERC. Late last year, the commission rejected an initial plan from Veresen to build a gas-export terminal and 232 miles of pipeline in Oregon — a project that would have cost $7.6 billion — citing concerns about demand. The company believes it has addressed some of the agency’s concerns about a lack of overseas buyers, but there’s no point in sending a new proposal to a commission that lacks a quorum.

Louisiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan — these are all states that voted for Donald Trump in November, and it seems safe to assume they did so in part because of his pledge to bring back jobs and rejuvenate America’s energy industry. Yet energy-infrastructure projects in these states can’t get started because the Trump administration has failed to give FERC a quorum of commissioners.

Yes, potential administration nominees need vetting and background checks, and Trump didn’t come to Washington with a bulging Rolodex of policy wonks eager to work in government. But there’s evidence that the administration’s failure to fill FERC’s empty seats is due, at least in part, to basic inattentiveness and sloppiness. Asked about the slow pace of nominations and filling administrative jobs, a lobbyist told Politico earlier this month that, “Honestly, I don’t think it’s a huge priority for the White House.”

Ironically, the administration’s failure to nominate FERC commissioners who would enact its own priorities has brought about results its ideological foes prefer. Last September, Winona LaDuke, Ralph Nader’s erstwhile presidential running mate, lamented that so many oil and gas companies were attempting to expand pipelines across the country.

“All of the catastrophes that are happening elsewhere in the world have to do with the fact that North America is retooling its infrastructure and going after the dirtiest oil in the world,” LaDuke said, warning that America “will add hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 to the environment, if these pipelines are allowed through.”

Who could have guessed that all LaDuke needed to stop so many pipelines from going forward was an administration that couldn’t be bothered to fill a few bureaucratic vacancies?

— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.

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