LITTLE ROCK — U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, both R-Ark., said Wednesday they are placing a hold on President Barack Obama’s nominee for a position at the U.S. Department of Energy until they get more answers from the agency about a proposed transmission line.
The senators said they will block the nomination of Victoria Marie Beacher Wassmer as undersecretary for management and performance because the Energy Department has insufficiently responded to their questions about the proposed Plains & Eastern Clean Line, a transmission line that would carry wind energy from the Oklahoma panhandle to Arkansas and Tennessee.
Boozman and Cotton have questioned whether the department’s proposed participation in the project under the Energy Policy Act is appropriate and whether a conflict of interest has been created by Clean Line Energy Partners’ payment of the department’s expenses related to investigating the Houston company’s application for the project.
“The Department of Energy has provided insufficient and incomplete responses to a series of questions from members of the Senate and House related to the department’s implementation of Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005,” the senators said in a joint statement Wednesday. “A requested meeting with the secretary of energy to discuss these matters has not yet occurred.”
They also said they remain concerned about financial arrangements between the department and applicants like Clean Line.
“The department has still not explained how it avoids conflicts of interest when applicants like Clean Line pay the salaries and expenses associated with pending applications. Before the federal government exercises eminent domain over Arkansans’ private property, Arkansans at least deserve a fair process without conflicts of interest, the senators said.
Boozman and Cotton said they have received only “partial” responses to date and said they hope to meet with Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz soon to resolve the matter.
Clean Line Executive Director Mario Hurtado said Wednesday the project has been going through multiple rounds of review since the application was submitted 5 1/2 years ago.
“The project is still undergoing comprehensive reviews by DOE which will address the concerns raised by the Arkansas delegation to DOE. The Plains & Eastern Clean Line project will move forward only after completing these reviews,” he said.
Hurtado said DOE’s funding arrangement to cover the costs of its review process is consistent with the federal policy supporting cost-based fees used for federal oversight of energy projects. He also said Clean Line does not pay Energy Department employees.
“DOE employees reviewing the Plains & Eastern Clean Line are compensated by the United States under the terms of the federal civil service laws and are subject to federal standards of conduct applicable to all federal employees, including conflict of interest rules,” he said. “These rules prohibit DOE personnel from participating in an official capacity in a regulatory review if they have a financial interest in the project under consideration.”