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Our nation's decisions about how to produce, transport, and use energy were once seen as the province of a narrow band of specialists and the interest of a small but committed group of consumer advocates. In recent years, however, energy policy has moved squarely into the public's zone of concern. People are increasingly aware of energy's profound implications for public health and safety, national security, and climate change. They're realizing that energy policy is not only about heating and cooling homes more efficiently, transitioning away from fossil fuels, and achieving "energy independence." It's also about equity and justice, regardless of wealth or background. It's about shaping the decisions that profoundly affect our lives and our future. It is about democracy.
Yet, as members of the public tune into debates over energy policy, they face considerable barriers that prevent them from engaging with those who make energy-related decisions on our behalf. Like many government agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) does not meaningfully engage the public in its various administrative proceedings. This is important because FERC oversees much of the nation's energy infrastructure and sets energy market rules, rates, and reliability standards. As a result of limited measures for public participation within this influential agency, only the most sophisticated and privileged among us (often those paid to advocate for corporate interests and the wealthy few) have real power to influence important policymaking processes within FERC.
Structurally marginalized groups face the highest barriers to participation and pay the highest price for lack of access. Long subject to environmental racism, low-income communities of color are more likely to experience higher rates of illness — and shorter lifespans as a result — due to energy-related harms. Low-income communities, as well as the elderly and disabled, also experience disproportionate energy burdens, meaning that they must allocate a higher percentage of their income to energy. Decision-making about energy rates and new infrastructure substantially affects these people's lives, yet these groups often lack the resources or physical proximity to decision-making processes to fully or effectively participate in them. And even amid a digital revolution that has democratized access to information, a pandemic that has normalized and increased remote work and learning, and massive social movements demanding racial justice, federal agency rulemaking has become more technocratic and still fails to take environmental justice into full account.
It is past time for federal regulatory agencies to better engage the public and incorporate their unique on-the-ground perspectives to inform their work and make better, fairer decisions. To its credit, FERC is taking steps to do so and has created a new leadership role focused on environmental justice and equity. A major structural change is also underway: after decades of delay, FERC is now creating a new Office of Public Participation (OPP) to empower the public through more inclusive and responsive policymaking processes.
This report provides core constituencies — agency policymakers, advocates for energy justice, and members of the public who are concerned about our energy future — with the information they need to ensure the OPP achieves its goal of promoting greater energy democracy at FERC. It begins by describing FERC's role in energy policy and how its actions impact Americans; it then reviews FERC's progress thus far in constituting the OPP. Finally, it offers recommendations to ensure the OPP achieves its goals and lessons to enhance regulatory democracy and equity across all federal regulatory agencies.
If done right, the OPP could be the federal government’s first meaningful step toward true energy democracy. As such, it could be a model for regulatory democracy writ large, one that is embraced and emulated by agencies across the federal government. The stakes — for equity and justice, for democracy and independence, and for our planet — are high.