By Ros Krasny
WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has tapped renewable energy advocate Ron Binz as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that has made headlines in the past year with tough enforcement actions against Wall Street banks.
Binz, a Democrat, was named as a commissioner of the regulator and if confirmed by the U.S. Senate would be designated as chairman, the White House said. He would succeed Jon Wellinghoff, who announced his resignation in May.
Binz was chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission from 2007 to 2011, and now runs Public Policy Consulting, a regulatory consulting practice.
He is also a policy advisor with the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, a privately funded initiative to support clean energy. He is a former president of the Competition Policy Institute, a non-profit group devoted to boosting competition in energy and telecommunications markets.
Binz’s time at the Colorado commission was marked by battles with Republican state legislators and mining interests when the commission encouraged the state’s largest utility to close coal-fired plants near Denver.
The Colorado Mining Association, an industry group, clashed with Binz in 2010 over what it termed the appearance of bias in the commission’s treatment of coal plants and efforts to promote new plants that would run on natural gas.
FERC, which has about 1,500 employees, regulates elements of the U.S. natural gas, electricity, oil and hydropower industries.
In recent years the agency has engineered a massive expansion of its enforcement operations that followed the passage of sweeping energy legislation passed in 2005.
FERC’s enforcement division has about 200 staff, up from about 20 a decade ago, including many lawyers and former traders with deep knowledge of power markets. It is led by Norman Bay, a former U.S. district attorney from New Mexico, and other law-enforcement heavyweights.
Over the past year the regulator has flexed its new muscles with a series of headline-grabbing fines and investigations against large banks.
The actions include a proposed record $470 million fine for British bank Barclays for alleged manipulation of the electricity market.
FERC also imposed a temporary ban on JPMorgan Chase & Co’s energy trading arm from part of the domestic power market.
Binz’s selection was praised by the Public Service Enterprise Group, a New Jersey electric generation company, for opening FERC up to “thoughtful consideration of emerging opportunities.”