On Monday the Houston Chronicle reported that the Trump administration is considering naming Barry Smitherman, the former chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, to be the next chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). According to the Chronicle’s anonymous source, Smitherman met with Trump’s transition team in Washington, D.C., before the inauguration in January to discuss the appointment. (An email to Smitherman was not immediately returned.)
The FERC is the federal agency charged with regulating the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil, as well as reviewing proposed LNG terminals and licensing hydroelectric projects. That gives it the power to approve controversial pipelines such as Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline. On Monday, the agency gave its approval for the $4.2 billion Rover Pipeline, which will transfer 3.25 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania into Michigan, and which has drawn protests from property owners and environmentalists.
Smitherman is a longtime political ally of former Governor Rick Perry, whom President Trump has nominated to lead the Department of Energy. In December, Smitherman wrote an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News praising Perry for championing the 2002 deregulation of Texas’s electricity markets:
I came to the PUC [Public Utility Commission] in April 2004, and there were many at the legislature, within industry, and at consumer groups who advocated for a return to the old vertically integrated ways.
It would have been easy for Perry to have pulled the plug on electric companies, but he stuck to the competitive model and strongly supported PUC commissioners, like me, as we made mid-course corrections and worked through some of the thorniest transition issues.
Before being named by Perry to the Public Utility Commission, Smitherman was an investment banker for First Boston, Lazard Freres, and J.P. Morgan. He reportedly had a reputation as a “hard-charging executive who speaks his mind,” but also as someone “difficult to work with,” according to a Houston Press story that is worthy of a read.
In 2004 Smitherman self-published a 116-page book titled If Jesus Were An Investment Banker (Or Any Other Type of Modern Businessman): Leadership Principles from the Messiah and Personal Reflections of an Investment Banker Striving to Be a Christian (available on Amazon for $20.99). That same year, Governor Perry appointed him to a seat on the Public Utility Commission, where, the Chronicle writes, he “developed a reputation as a champion of the state’s oil and gas industry, frequently falling under criticism from environmentalists who argued the hydraulic fracturing boom sweeping the state was not being adequately regulated.”
Six years later, in 2011 Perry appointed Smitherman to a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas. Two years later Smitherman announced his candidacy for state attorney general, releasing a campaign video highlighting the fact that he had sued the EPA seven times and promising to lead a “conservative crusade” against the Obama administration.
During one speech to an anti-abortion group during the campaign, he claimed that many unborn babies “would have voted Republican” and lamented America’s low fertility rate. (Referring to his four children, Smitherman said that he and his wife were “doing our part.”)
In 2014 the Texas Observer reported that Smitherman had written an email to his daughter’s teacher complaining that material from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic hate groups, was being used to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. Smitherman argued that the SPLC’s list of hate groups unjustly included organizations like Crusaders for Yahweh, “a white supremacist organization founded by neo-Nazi Paul Mullet,” according to the Observer, and the Jewish Defense League (which the FBI calls a “right-wing terrorist group”).When told by the Observer of Smitherman’s complaint, SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok suggested that the Railroad Commissioner “needs to relearn how to read, maybe return for a comprehensive reading course.”
In the March 2014 GOP primary Smitherman placed third behind Ken Paxton and Dan Branch, receiving 22 percent of the vote. Later that year he stepped down from the Railroad Commission, and in March 2015 took a job in the Austin office of Houston-based law firm Vinson and Elkins, advising energy industry clients. As a private citizen he initially supported Ted Cruz during the 2016 Republican primary, although he “wholeheartedly” endorsed Trump after Cruz dropped out.
Smitherman left Vinson and Elkins on January 20, the day of Trump’s inauguration, fueling speculation that he was planning to accept a position in the new administration. The most recent FERC chairman, Norman Bay, resigned last week, leaving only two of the five spots on the commission filled. And Trump and Smitherman do seem to see eye to eye on energy issues—like the president, Smitherman has called global warming a “hoax.”