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Biden appoints Willie Phillips to be first Black chair of FERC

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President Joe Biden appointed Willie L. Phillips as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Phillips, who served as acting chair since January 2023, is the first Black person to be named to the position.

FERC, an independent agency established in 1977, regulates the interstate transmission and wholesale of natural gas, oil, electricity, and other energy projects.

Phillips’ tenure will end in 2026. He was appointed a commissioner of the agency in 2021 and has served as acting chair for more than a year. Prior to serving the federal government, Phillips served as chairman of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission commissioner Willie Phillips waits to testify during the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Thursday, March 3, 2022, to review FERC’s recent guidance on natural gas pipelines.” (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The White House touted Phillips as an “experienced regulatory attorney” with over 20 years of “legal expertise as a utility regulator, in private practice, and as an in-house counsel.”

“I’m thrilled and I want to thank the president for making me chair of FERC. It is the greatest honor of my professional career,” Phillips told theGrio.

He said his chairmanship announcement held a “special meaning” during Black History Month.

“I know it means so much not just to me but to the community,” Phillips said.

In a July 2023 letter to the White House, the Congressional Black Caucus urged Biden to name Phillips as chairman, joining other groups like the Black Economic Alliance, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the American Association of Blacks in Energy.

Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, conducts a news conference following the CBC’s National Summit on Democracy & Race near Capitol Hill on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Phillips thanked the CBC for their support, which he said “can’t be overstated.” 

“The Congressional Black Caucus, in particular, Chairman Steven Horsford and [U.S. Rep.] Jim Clyburn … they have been my greatest supporters and greatest allies and a lot of credit goes to them,” he said.

In Phillips’ appointment, the White House vowed to “tackle the climate crisis, advance environmental justice, and create a clean electricity grid” by 2035.

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“FERC will maintain an important role in spurring access to reliable, affordable carbon-free energy moving across the country,” the Biden administration said in a memo. 

Looking ahead, Phillips said, “It’s important that we continue to do the important work for the American people, and that’s providing reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy for our nation.”

He said FERC’s number one priority is to ensure that American energy is reliable, noting that the commission has taken “significant actions to improve the reliability of our electric grid.”

High tension electrical power lines at a transfer station along Highway 58 are viewed on March 28, 2017, near Buttonwillow, California. Oil and natural gas production have been joined by solar panels and wind turbines to provide large scale electrical energy for the entire Western United States. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Phillips said that in the coming months, the commission will act on a “groundbreaking” 2022 proposed rule for utilities and grid operators to establish long-term regional planning.

Energy and environmental challenges disproportionately impact Black communities, so much so that a 2020 study found that Black renters experienced greater energy insecurity than white renters and homeowners, exposing them to climate vulnerability.

As a Black man, Phillips said focusing on environmental justice is “personal” for him.

“I come from an environmental justice community in Alabama. I know what it feels like to live in the shadows of heavy industry,” he shared. “The burdens and the benefits of our energy delivery system and this transition … have not fallen evenly on everybody.”

“I think it’s important that we make sure in 2024 that we can plan for the energy grid of the future,” Phillips added. “That takes into consideration the voices of all people, especially those who suffer under environmental justice.”


Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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