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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's nominee to be the nation's top energy regulator came under sharp questioning Tuesday from lawmakers concerned that he may be opposed to coal and natural gas.
Republicans and at least one Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee said they believe that former Colorado regulator Ron Binz favors renewable energy sources such as wind and solar over traditional fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.
Specifically, Republicans said they were troubled by Binz's comment that natural gas may be a "dead end" fuel. Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also criticized Binz's support of a Colorado clean-air law that they said resulted in the closure of several coal-fired power plants.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the panel's top Republican, told Binz at the conclusion of a three-hour hearing that she would vote against his nomination to chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Murkowski said she was not convinced Binz's views were "compatible with FERC's mission" to regulate interstate transmission of electricity, oil and natural gas.
Murkowski and other Republicans also said they were concerned that Binz was not truthful when he assured them that he was not part of a coordinated effort by a green-energy group and a Washington lobbying firm to boost his nomination.
Binz served on Colorado's utilities commission from 2007 to 2011 and helped oversee efforts to reduce the state's reliance on coal-fired utility plants and increase use of renewable energy such as wind and solar power.
He previously served as the state's advocate for energy consumers. He now works as a consultant and is affiliated with a Colorado renewable energy institute headed by former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.
Manchin, who strongly supports coal, said he was undecided on Binz's nomination, but his comments made clear he has serious concerns. If Manchin or another pro-coal Democrat, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, oppose Binz, his nomination would be in jeopardy. Democrats control the energy panel, 12-10. No Republicans spoke in favor of Binz Tuesday.
Manchin said he was "skeptical" of Binz's tenure as chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.
"Mr. Binz's record shows he strongly favors renewable (energy) over other energy sources, and he favors rising rates as part of the new economy,' Manchin said.
The senator also said his coal-producing state is getting "beaten up" by the Obama administration, which he said shows little appreciation for the nation's largest source of electricity.
Binz said that as Colorado utilities chairman, he approved the state's largest coal-fired power plant, and noted that coal provides 40 percent of Colorado's electricity, the largest share of any power source.
As FERC chairman he would be "source neutral" on energy, Binz said, adding that he would emphasize reliability.
Binz told the energy panel he had spoken "inartfully" at a March forum when he called natural gas a "dead end" fuel. He said he fully embraces use of natural gas, at least for the next two decades, but is concerned that steps need to be taken by 2035 to ensure that natural gas does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.
He called natural gas "a terrific fuel" and said it would be needed for several decades at least, until other, less-polluting energy sources can be developed.
Natural gas may even "be permanent" if technology can be developed to "capture" carbon dioxide produced by gas generation, Binz said.
He denied that he had participated in a lobbying effort on his own behalf. "I have hired no one. I am paying no one" to represent his interests before the committee, Binz said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the energy panel's chairman, said FERC does not regulate coal. Wyden said he was convinced Binz shared his view that the energy commission should not "pick winners and losers" among competing energy sources.