Gov. Wes Moore on Friday shook up the Maryland Public Service Commission and nominated two new members to the agency overseeing gas and electric utilities and shaping the state’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. He previously served as director of the Maryland Energy Administration under Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat who held the office between 1995 and 2003.
Juan Alvarado, a senior official at the American Gas Association — the lobbying arm of the natural gas industry — was also named as a PSC member. Alvarado, an economist, 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 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 senate last July, clearing the way for three new PSC appointees. Moore’s picks will presumably be more sympathetic to the goals contained in the state’s new renewable energy legislation, which requires a 60% 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 whom 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.”
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 commission 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 Appellate Court of Maryland.
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 appeals court has yet to schedule a hearing for the case.