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PUC's Powelson takes helm of national utility regulatory group

Robert F. Powelson was the head of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry in 2008 and unfamiliar with the nuances of utility issues when Gov. Ed Rendell named him to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Powelson, now deeply immersed in the business of utility oversight, last week assumed a one-year term as president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), the Washington advocacy group for state public utility commissioners.

"It's going to be a very big year for us as an organization, and I'm really gearing up," Powelson, 47, said in an interview Monday. "For me personally, it's a real hallmark in my career to have this opportunity."

His term at NARUC comes at challenging moment: The incoming Trump administration is expected to put in play a wide range of energy-policy issues, such as President Obama's Clean Power Plan, that directly affect the work of state utility regulators.

"We as an organization obviously are going to be intensively involved in this transition," said Powelson, a Republican.

As head of a national organization of 258 regulatory commissioners from 50 states, the District of Columbia, and several territories, Powelson needs to straddle a nonpartisan line to represent the common interests of state organizations that have a diversity of political cultures.

Many states came down on opposing sides of Obama's Clean Power Plan, which if it survives court challenge would give states individual targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. NARUC's position during the plan's formulation was to encourage the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and allow the states to devise individual plans to respond to the federal targets, rather than taking a position for or against the policy.

"We try to reach consensus on issues," Powelson said. He said NARUC's main concern is to assert states' authority to govern utility rate-making and oversight in harmony with federal energy, communications, and transportation agencies. "We staunchly focus on states' rights and respecting the regulatory compact," he said.

Powelson knows a few things about working in a bipartisan environment. He was first appointed to the PUC by Gov. Rendell, a Democrat, and was reappointed to a five-year term in 2014 by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. By law, the PUC membership is mixed, so the commissioners tend to play down party affiliations.

He said he will focus on three critical issues driving the future of utility regulation: infrastructure; innovation in new technology; and investment in people.

One area on which NARUC has butted heads with the federal government is pipeline oversight. State commissions traditionally have governed local gas-utility systems, and the federal government has jurisdiction over the safety of larger pipelines. With expansion of shale-gas development, states like Pennsylvania have asserted more oversight of large pipelines, but are unable to hire enough pipeline-safety engineers, who are certified at a single federal training facility.

NARUC has urged the Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to train more inspectors.

"Wouldn't you think if you could expand training, that would be good for consumer protection?" Powelson said. "And so we fight with them, saying you've got to expand this training regime."