May 25, 2014


FERC governs the electricity grid, and in 2011 Mr. Wellinghoff ordered transmission operators to pay retail energy users to reduce their power consumption at peak periods. This smart-grid program is known as “demand response” and can help run the system more efficiently and reliably. But FERC rigged this well-meaning incentive to harm traditional baseload power, especially coal but also natural gas and nuclear.

The problem is that Congress limited FERC’s mandate to the wholesale interstate power markets—that is, power supply. Authority over retail power demand is reserved to the “exclusive jurisdiction” of the states.

FERC regulated anyway, claiming that the demand-response program would “directly affect” the regional level and therefore the two distinct state and interstate spheres were essentially the same. Judge Janice Rogers Brown shreds that logic as a “metaphysical distinction.” She goes on to note that FERC’s rationale “has no limiting principle” because changes in one market inevitably beget changes in another. FERC could use the same rationale to claim jurisdiction over “any number of areas, including the steel, fuel and labor markets.”

The D.C. Circuit ruled FERC lacked statutory authority but then took a further step and declared the demand-response rule “arbitrary and capricious” on the merits, which is unusual. The courts generally defer to the judgment of regulators, and the Administrative Procedures Act blesses all but the most egregious overreach.

The bureaucrats should be held personally responsible for overreach. But this is a start.

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