Controversial chairman of energy commission submits resignation |

Controversial chairman of energy commission submits resignation

WASHINGTON (AP) – The chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who has clashed with congressional Democrats and California’s governor over the handling of the Western power crisis, is resigning at the end of the month.

Curtis Hebert, a Republican from Mississippi, submitted his resignation in a letter to President Bush delivered to the White House on Friday. The resignation takes effect Aug. 31, White House spokeswoman Ann Womack said Monday.

The resignation had been expected amid indications that the president preferred Patrick Wood III, a state regulator from Texas, to head the federal agency that oversees wholesale electricity markets and interstate natural gas transportation.

”The president appreciates Curtis Hebert’s service as chairman of the FERC,” Womack said. ”He has worked hard to balance the need for just and reasonable rates with the need to encourage adequate new supplies of energy.”

Scott McClellan, deputy White House press secretary, said in Crawford, Texas, where the president if vacationing, that the resignation ”was Hebert’s decision.”

”He felt it was time to move on,” said McClellan.

Bush is expected to appoint Wood, an old associate from when Bush was Texas governor, as the new chairman. Bush nominated Wood, who had been chairman of the Texas Public Utility Commission since 1995, to the FERC earlier this year. The Senate confirmed him May 25.

Hebert, who grew up in the same town of Pascagoula, Miss., as Senate Republican leader Trent Lott and considers him a mentor, was named FERC chairman by Bush in January. At the time, Hebert was the only Republican on the five-member commission because of two vacancies.

Although Hebert was said to have considered the appointment a permanent one, there were indications months ago from the administration that the president wanted Wood to head the agency that has been at the center of the California electricity controversy.

Critics charge the FERC should have imposed price controls long ago to assure ”just and reasonable” electricity prices in a California market that surged out of control.

But Hebert, a strong free-market advocate, has defended electricity deregulation and vigorously opposed price controls even as prices soared to 10 times what they were before the crisis began.

He frequently clashed with one of the commission’s Democratic members, William Massey, over the FERC’s role in ensuring that just and reasonable prices are charged by Western power marketers. Massey wanted additional price restrictions.

Announcing his resignation Monday, Hebert defended his hands-off approach, declaring, ”I came to this job a strong advocate of free markets and, if anything, my time on the commission has only strengthened this belief.”

”We need to get the rules right,” he continued, ”but it is free enterprise that will put more and more consumers in the winner’s circle.”

California Gov. Gray Davis and the state’s two senators – Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer – have blamed Hebert for the FERC’s failure to contain prices and its hesitancy to pursue refunds from power marketers accused of price gouging.

Davis, in particular, has made no secret of his distaste for Hebert, whom he views as a free-market ideologue unwilling to accept shortcomings of the West’s electricity markets.

”The governor is looking forward to another Bush nominee who, unlike Mr. Hebert, is sensitive to California’s needs during its energy crisis,” said Steve Maviglio, Davis’ chief spokesman. He said Davis and Wood ”see eye to eye on a variety of issues” and that Wood, ”unlike Commissioner Hebert, is not an ideologue. He’s a problem solver.”

Hebert has argued repeatedly that price controls will add to the power supply problem in California by stifling power plant construction. He also insisted that the FERC has been aggressive in seeking refunds when evidence of price gouging has been found.

In June, after Wood and another Bush nominee, Nora Brownell of Pennsylvania, joined the commission, the FERC issued price caps on electricity in California and other Western states. Since then, electricity prices have eased in the California market.

While the lower prices have been largely attributed to a combination of mild weather and a push for conservation, the FERC-imposed price restrictions also are widely believed to have played a role.

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