Photo courtesy of FERC

FERC’s Cheryl LaFleur: It takes an energy village

February 22, 2016 Laura Curtis

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Cheryl LaFleur and her husband were empty nesters, contemplating getting a dog in 2010 when she got a cold call from the White House asking if she would consider becoming a FERC commissioner. She left her home in Massachusetts, moved into a downtown D.C. apartment and joined FERC nine months later. Since then her career has been a roller-coaster ride.

LaFleur had been a commissioner at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission three years when Chairman Jon Wellinghoff left at the end of 2013. In a tumultuous transition — negotiated with help from Senators Mary Landrieu and Lisa Murkowski — she served as acting chairman for eight months, then chairman from July 2014 until Norman Bay was confirmed in April 2015.

Since then, LaFleur has had to figure out how to resume her tenure as one of five commissioners. “It was definitely an adjustment; it was not a relief,” LaFleur said in an interview. “I loved being chairman. I liked leading senior staff in accomplishing big policy initiatives.” Her current term expires in 2019.

Still, in an interview that ranged from her love of Boston sports teams to the mentoring advice she provides young women, the Harvard Law School graduate said she has had no regrets: “I remembered that I loved being a commissioner for the three years before all this happened and was fairly confident I would get back to loving it…This is a great job.”

Before coming to FERC, LaFleur had spent more than 20 years in the electric and natural gas industries. She was last an executive at National Grid, USA, where she was responsible for delivering electricity to 3.4 million customers in her native New England.

Her days now are packed full of meetings on issues such as capacity markets or pipeline siting. LaFleur also works to leaven the daunting proceedings. When one of her teams is in the championship she wears its jersey to the FERC meeting; and her office is decorated each holiday season with a miniature “energy village,” with a nuclear plant, house with solar panels on the roof and train with oil and coal cars.

“All technology is welcome, and we don’t have setback laws or environmental laws because the table isn’t that big,” she jokes.

First Word Energy sat down with LaFleur to discuss how she motivates herself to read the exhaustive FERC orders, the FERC celebration after the Supreme Court decision to uphold its demand-response measure and which restaurants she and her husband, William A. Kuncik, love the most.

What’s your biggest accomplishment at FERC so far?

I think leading through the 17 months when I was acting chairman and chairman was probably my biggest accomplishment. It was a period of considerable turmoil and uncertainty; for most of the first half I didn’t know if I would be renominated, how long I might be chairman, or what might happen next. But I think I was successful at staying relentlessly focused on moving the work of the commission forward, leading as I would if it wasn’t time-limited.

Senator Mary Landrieu was the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, our committee of jurisdiction. Both she and the current chairman, Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was then ranking member, were both very supportive of my nomination. They were very helpful in designing the phased transition at FERC where I was Chairman for nine months and then went back to being a commissioner when Norman Bay took over.

The thought that you could be doing a very important, demanding job and not know whether four months later you would be doing that job, or closing up your apartment is just not something you expect at age 60. It’s like you’re waiting to see if you get into college. But hey, in the presidential confirmation process many people have endured far worse, waiting years to be confirmed. It just seems to be part of the territory.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

It has broadened my horizons so much. I thought I knew a lot about electricity after being in it for 21 years — running an energy company, big safety and reliability programs and working on regulatory things. But I have learned so much more about other regions of the country. I’m a people person, and I’ve met so many wonderful people working together to keep energy moving in the United States. I think I could be dropped off in any state capital and there would be someone to invite me for dinner at their home. That’s a nice feeling that I didn’t have before.

I also like the feeling of being a person who is doing things that will have some enduring impact beyond my time. We are all standing on the shoulders of the people who came before and at the same time nurturing the people who will come after us. It’s just human nature to like to think that you did something that had an impact. The scope of this job enables me to have that thought.

What is a typical day like for you?

Most days, most of the business hours are consumed in meetings. Either with my team — I have three advisers, a confidential assistant and an executive assistant — and we work together, putting out about 1,000 orders a year. We also meet with members of the staff at the commission and with all segments of the energy community, including industry, electricity, power and gas; the environmental community; state commissioners and people from the Hill.

Then, starting in the late afternoon and into the evenings — and on the weekends — I read. I’m a night person more than a morning person so I will stay and do the reading to try to get a jump on it so the Saturday pile isn’t too depressing.

I do a lot of public speaking in D.C., but I also travel, on average, at least twice a month, usually to some other region of the country where I try to do a few things, maybe a speech and a meeting with the regulators. Occasionally I allow myself a field trip to some part of the industry.

What do you do to relax then?

Well I’m a big sports fan, as is known to all because I have worn Patriots, Red Sox and Bruins gear to the commission’s open meetings. The Celtics have never given me a reason during my time here. I only wear jerseys for teams in the championship.

Sports is good because it really captures your attention so you can’t be thinking of whatever else is on your mind. I also find that it’s a great icebreaker wherever I go, I just ask my husband, which Patriots players came from that state and I have my natural entree!

Now this is little more wonky: I am a huge consumer of crossword puzzles, the harder the better. When you are thinking of a 16-word phrase for ‘gets out of the way’ you can’t be thinking about a problem with the capacity market. I mostly do puzzles from books and when I go on planes, depending on how much I want to discipline myself to read, I tear out pages of the book so that I can do a puzzle between each order. I let myself do one crossword puzzle but if I took the whole book it might be intoxicating, and I wouldn’t open the briefcase.

Favorite sport? Football, baseball or hockey?

Well. We are Patriots season tickets holders. Growing up, baseball was my first love but now, because of the marital influence we’ve become a football family first. Especially because games take place mostly on Sundays and baseball is almost every night, so if you’re trying to keep up on case files…

What are your favorite neighborhood haunts?

As for restaurants, in Georgetown, I like La Chaumiere, the little French place on M street that’s been there forever. And I like il Canale, which has about the best pizza in town. My husband is a big consumer of pizza.

Beyond that I like Le Diplomat and here in this area I like Charlie Palmer’s for a big lunch because it is just so Washington. When I travel I really eschew places that you can get anywhere and to me, with Charlie Palmer’s, you know you’re in Washington D.C., by the people that you see there and the way they act.

Oh and can I add one more restaurant!? La Perla, which is an oooold red-sauce Italian right near the bridge to Georgetown, is also one of our favorite places. It’s one of those chef-owned places where the chef kisses your hand.

You’ve been here since 2010. What frustrates you?

The main thing that frustrates me about D.C. is how difficult it is for the different parts of government, and the different people in it, to come together and find solutions for the biggest problems. I have the fortune to meet with many folks in the Senate and the House and, individually, they are ardently concerned about their state or their district. They’re very engaged in the issues, really trying to be a good public servants, but collectively it seems that we are in a difficult time for reaching legislative solutions to the problems we have. It has changed how people look at government.

I’ve come to feel almost defensive of the government and how hard people work because it’s not an easy time to be in the federal government. This is not a situation that has to exist because we are still electing good people but it’s a difficult time to pull big things together.

There are legitimate criticisms that can be made of the partisanship, and sometimes paralysis, but there are other conclusions that people make, like, that all government employees are lazy. And I can only judge from FERC, but they’re not. So I try to be a good representative of the federal workforce for the time that I am in it.

What do you look for when hiring?

I look for people who are smart and good writers. I’m a picky writer. I like people who are direct and honest and will tell me what they think and not what they think I want to hear.

I really look for people with fire in their belly, people who are really going to care about something and push it. That is one thing that really makes people successful.

And in this job in particular I look for people with a sense of humor because we have six people in this office suite for many, many hours of the week. There has to be that camaraderie. I’m a big believer in using humor to defuse difficult situations and in speeches. I’m not a joke teller but seeing the funny side in whatever it is you’re going through — because there usually is one — I think it helps a lot in the workplace.

How do you use humor to explain FERC’s work?

At a recent Energy Bar Association meeting, I gave a ‘FERC 101: Etiquette for Dealing with FERC’ speech on how to conduct meetings, how to make your points so they’ll be listened to, what to do and not do when you file with us in writing.

I realized that it could come across as a big fat lecture so I peppered it with anonymous examples of people who’d done the opposite of what I was recommending, sometimes in humorous ways. I really had important points and if it hadn’t been funny it would have been ‘school-marmy.’ People turn off if they feel they’re being hectored.

How do you prepare for speeches?

I don’t read off prepared remarks. Of course I follow the outline but in order to be effective you have to read the audience. It’s pretty easy to tell when people are hanging on your every word and when they’re checking their iPhones. And I don’t have a stump speech. If I’m going to California they have a very different situation right now than Oklahoma. Even between the time you get there and the time you wrote your speech you probably have had encounters that give you more information.

How does the loss of a Commissioner affect the work?

Commissioner Phil Moeller left in the fall — his term ended last year and he has not been replaced. And the other Republican on the commission, Tony Clark, announced at last month’s meeting that he won’t seek renomination so we could potentially be on a path to being down two.

For much of the time I’ve been here we’ve had four commissioners, however, including almost the entire time I was chairman. I think we have functioned effectively. The difficultly with four is that you can have a tie, which occurred once on an item that we had to act on while I was chairman. The Federal Power Act holds that if the commission is deadlocked, then the new rate goes into effect. That happened once in 2014, which was very unfortunate.

Now if you have three, which I’ve never experienced, I think you could have a different problem. Three is a quorum, but we do have some cases in which a commissioner is recused. Former state commissioners cannot work on things that they worked on when they were in their state, for example. So if we had a case like that when we had three we could just not be able to act on it. Beyond that, the commission is designed by statute to be bipartisan and have five people. If we went down to three at this point we would not be bipartisan. I think we are three great folks, but five heads are better than three!

Tell me about the protesters at FERC.

The protesting at FERC started about a year and a half ago and the way I look at it, I’m a government official and we are a public body and the public has a right to be there. But it is difficult to see people who are choosing to be dragged out of a room, because they do have ways to make their views known. But one of the ways they are choosing to do that is to protest.

People can file comments in our cases, they’re open to all. When we have applications for new pipelines, which is what most of the protesting is about, we have numerous scoping meetings out in the community. I’ve also met, here in the commission with ‘friends of this county,’ or ‘opponents of this pipeline,’ in a civil meeting and heard their points of view.

No one wants to think they are deeply upsetting people, but I recognize that things we are doing are sometimes controversial. A lot of the people who are protesting are, based what they say, extremely upset about things that are not in FERC’s jurisdiction, like the way gas is mined with hydraulic fracturing, but this is a public place where they can make those views known.

What was it like to have Order 745 challenged?

I was in an airport on May 23rd, 2014 when the D.C. Circuit Court vacated Order 745. I was changing planes. I said to my husband, ‘Take me to the most quiet part of this airport. I’m going to drop everything and read this I don’t care if I miss my plane.’ It was the middle of the day and we went to the international part of the airport, which was desolate, and we sat in those plastic chairs and internalized the document.

I did feel protective of it. I was chairman when we petitioned for cert and had cert granted. I was concerned about the implications for demand response because demand-side technologies have the potential to reduce customers’ rates, to help with reliability, help with environmental goals. I was also concerned with what a decision might say about the jurisdiction of the commission more generally. We are seeing more and more technologies that could play a role in the wholesale market, and the outcome of the Supreme Court case could affect those as well. I was delighted.

What was it like to watch the Court work through it?

That was the third time I’d been in the Supreme Court, including one other case that I’d worked on as a lawyer, although I didn’t argue it. It was different to sit there and hear them discussing things I was very involved in, to hear them talking about the net-benefits test from the bench, it was just surreal. Justice Elena Kagan delivered an extremely clear description of how the electric system works that you could hand to someone and say, ‘Here, read this and you’ll see what happens.’ Whoever worked on that, including her, did a very clear job explaining complicated material. It was delightful.

So did you celebrate?

Yes, I did. I went out to dinner with my husband. It was one of those snow days that shut everything down but I said, “We’re going out.” We went to Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons because we thought a hotel will have people there and supplies of food. And it’s a pretty swanky place, not one of my regular ones. You have to celebrate the good things, because every job has hard things.

The chairman also held a little reception here, and allowed me to help host it, for the all the people at FERC who worked on the original order and all the people who worked on the Supreme Court case. The initial notice of proposed rulemaking started in 2009. That led to the rule, which led to the D.C. Circuit case, and to the Supreme Court case. So over that period of time a lot of people worked on it. I’m a big believer in celebrating and giving credit to the people who do the work.

What do you advise young people in the energy field?

I have a thing I say in speeches but I really mean it. In every generation there is something that’s really the big thing. In the ‘60s and it was the space program and rockets. Then it was computers and the cell phone revolution and biotech. Energy is cool now! We are on the front page of the newspaper; we’re getting really wonderful young people to come into the profession. I’ve been doing this my whole life and energy is finally cool! I really believe that and I think that for young people who are figuring out what they want to do, we’re always going to need energy. You can’t make it in China.

I boil down all my life advice into three things:

First, bloom where you’re planted. Be great at the job you are in, success comes from success. A lot of people think the job they are doing isn’t good enough for them, but I find the people who get the best next opportunities are those who focus on doing a good job in the role they’re in.

Second, don’t burn bridges. Especially now, nothing you do ever goes away. Keep in touch with as many people as you can. Those are the people you can learn from, that is the circle you have, as you continue in your career. No matter who you are, you have a network.

Third, life is a movie, not a snapshot. Women in particular tend to have a lot of chapters in their careers. I’ve certainly had ups and downs. I’ve had times when my career has been my top thing and times when it has taken a back seat to other parts of my life.

You can’t judge yourself from one moment. Women in particular also tend to be really hard on themselves and think, ‘Oh if I quit to have a baby I’ll never get back on track.’ People have to believe that’s not true. Careers have different shapes, and there are different trajectories at which to succeed.

I tell people to just believe in themselves as they go through it. It’s dangerous to make statements about women this or that, but I think women can be very self critical and we need them in this field and all the other fields. I think the energy field has historically been perceived as a difficult place for women because it tended to promote and reward people who have a technical or engineering background. It’s changing. With so much of energy depending on regulation and policy, we are seeing more and more leaders that come from the legal, regulatory, financial or the communications side. There’s more than one way to be smart.

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