c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — The coal industry, feeling threatened by federal efforts to promote wind and solar power, has opened a counterattack by opposing President Barack Obama’s nomination of a renewable electricity advocate to head the federal agency with jurisdiction over power lines.

The U.S. Senate Energy Committee is expected to hold a hearing Tuesday on the nomination of Ronald J. Binz to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Binz, 64, headed the Colorado Public Utility Commission from 2007 to 2011, where he was known for promoting renewable energy and efficiency, and for helping to draft a law that encouraged closing some old coal plants and cleaning up newer ones.

The fight over Binz has been unusually public, considering that the job at stake is at an agency most people cannot name.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” said James J. Hoecker, an energy lawyer who is a former chairman of the commission. “It’s an extraordinary show that’s being put on right now.”

In April 2012, Binz was the lead author of a paper favoring “risk-aware energy regulation,” which argued for building wind farms and other sources of renewable energy as a hedge against future fossil fuel price increases and costly new pollution rules on burning coal or gas. He argued that renewable sources should be pursued even if they cost more than conventional ones.

But the coal industry maintains that Binz’s nomination is part of an administration strategy to further reduce the use of coal.

“FERC is the last piece of the puzzle,” said Benjamin Cole, the spokesman for the American Energy Alliance, which is financed by coal and other fossil fuel industries. The administration’s goal, he said, was a low-carbon energy strategy that could not win the approval of Congress.

Environmental groups have rushed to Binz’s defense.

Regulatory decisions “shouldn’t just be about cost,” said Dan Bakal, director of the electric power program at Ceres, an environmental advocacy group. “So often the least-cost mentality dominates, but you really have to think about the risks.”

Ceres published Binz’s paper.

Neither Binz’s supporters nor his opponents have said exactly what he might do as chairman to advance renewable energy. Because Congress has not acted on climate legislation, the driving force for renewable energy is the states; the federal commission is limited to setting rules that enable such development rather than mandating it. Under the current chairman, Jon Wellinghoff, the agency has already created rules to encourage construction of transmission lines to places where renewable energy projects can be built.

The agency is also in charge of authorizing natural gas pipelines, and has a say in whether natural gas exports should be allowed. It also has some influence over how utilities prepare for digital attacks and extreme weather.

In the weeks before Binz was nominated in June, there was some speculation that the chairman’s job would go to John Norris, the senior Democrat on the five-member commission after Wellinghoff. But Norris told a trade publication, Transmission Hub, last week that he would not get the job because he was considered “too pro-coal,” a stance that he denied.

Coal advocates are hoping that some coal-state Democrats, perhaps Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, will not vote for Binz, creating a tie that could doom his nomination. In an attempt to portray him as radical, they are also raising the idea that Binz might be opposed to the greater use of cheap and relatively clean natural gas, which he once referred to as a “dead end.” (The reason is that natural gas emits far more carbon dioxide than would be allowed under Obama’s long-term goal to reduce greenhouse gases.)

At the Electricity Consumers Resource Council, which represents large industrial customers, Marc Yacker, a vice president, said that the coal industry had some reason to be worried. The industry believes, he said, that “the whole idea of socializing the cost of new transmission necessary to get wind to population centers is anti-coal.”