A Chat With the U.S. Congressman Trying to Make ‘Hot FERC Summer’ Happen

A Chat With the U.S. Congressman Trying to Make ‘Hot FERC Summer’ Happen
Hot FERC Summer. It's real. (Screenshot: Gizmodo)

The U.S. Congressional Record chronicles nearly everything that happens in the U.S. House and Senate. It includes watershed moments such as Rep. Barbara Lee’s speech as the only vote against authorising the use of force in Afghanistan and Sen. Edward Dirksen’s speech that ended up helping quash a filibuster against landmark civil rights legislation.

Now, it also includes a declaration of Hot FERC Summer.

U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, a 49-year-old member of Congress who is among the chamber’s most prolific energy policy experts, has started a crusade to make what is quite possibly the most boring, arcane federal agency some hot girl shit by invoking Megan Thee Stallion. Casten kicked off his campaign to pump up the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (the FERC in question) on July 20 with a floor speech opening with the line “Madam Speaker, I trust most of my colleagues have heard of ‘Hot Girl Summer’ and the broader Megan Thee Stallion oeuvre.” (The House’s average age is 57.6 years old so the odds are honestly not good, but I digress.)

Last week, he dropped his second, uh, track of Hot FERC Summer by invoking FERCalicious, a play on Fergie’s Fergalicious that only the daddest of dad jokers could love. The so cringe it may actually be good campaign has managed to raise the profile of FERC in a way a million articles on arcane rulemaking could never do. And the timing couldn’t be more important.

The commission in question is helmed by five regulators who are nominated by the president to serve five-year terms. The commissioners are identified by political affiliation, and there can never be more than three from one political party. Former President Donald Trump, for example, had to nominate a Democratic commissioner during his time in office. There’s currently an open seat that Biden could nominate a Democrat for as well, giving the party a 3-2 majority on the commission.

This matters for many reasons. Despite its mind-numbing name and reputation, FERC is a key tool for addressing climate change. Pipelines, high voltage power lines that cross state borders, and more fall under its purview. If your goal, as the Biden administration has stated, is to take an all-of-government approach to climate change and decarbonize the grid by 2035, FERC is a huge tool to do just that. Raising its profile is some thot shit, is what I’m trying to say.

Casten, who was a clean energy entrepreneur before being elected in 2018, has introduced a couple of bills to get FERC to consider the carbon costs of polluting infrastructure and speed up permitting. Which is all well in good. But the question on most people’s minds is: … what is even happening here?

So I hopped on the phone with Casten this week to get to the bottom of Hot FERC Summer and why you should give a damn. Our conversation that somehow also included the Iliad, and Casten’s dream of writing a PhD thesis linking Biggie and Bruce Springsteen. Casten also brought up WAP (the weatherization assistance program, get your mind out of the gutter, you jackals). We didn’t linger on it for too long as I didn’t want to besmirch a sitting member of Congress’ reputation by delving too deeply into the more, uh, famous WAP. I did ask, though, about his status as a hottie. A lightly edited version of our conversation follows.

Brian Kahn, Gizmodo: It seems like you’re having a good time with Hot FERC Summer. It’s great to see members of Congress enjoying their job.

Rep. Sean Casten: It’s a bit surreal. I am delighted to be at a point where large numbers of Americans, including people whose favourite reading outlet is People magazine are now thinking about what the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is and why it’s so important. If I know that was that there was this one internet trick to make that happen, I would have done it a long time ago.

Gizmodo: Can you talk a little bit about the backstory? Where did Hot FERC Summer even come from? How on Earth did you come up with this?

Casten: If I understand the Iliad correctly, sometimes the muse just lands on your shoulder and whispers poetic majesty. But who knows where these things come from. I’ve got two teenage daughters. We’ve got a lot of 20 somethings on our staff. I am a big fan of hip hop. Generally, these things just sort of came together in weird ways.

There’s this weird link, but about two years ago, I made a joke on Twitter about how much I loved the Weatherization Assistance Program and was delighted that Cardi B was finally talking about WAP. [laughs] That didn’t go over well.

Gizmodo: I was going to ask about WAP, but I didn’t want to besmirch your reputation as a member of Congress. Maybe we can circle back on that, though. But I’m curious, why focus on FERC? We could’ve had Hot Department of Energy Summer. What is it that’s so important about FERC to get folks engaged?

Casten: If we do not act like climate change is the single most important problem we need to be solving as a government, then we do not understand the science period, full stop. Nothing that we’re seeing is inconsistent with what we knew was scientifically going to happen 30 years ago. We are two-thirds of the way to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, which was the level that everybody said we’re going to get the real problems. We’re seeing what those real problems are. That’s the animating thing that drives this from the back end.

Coupled with that is that anything we do to meaningfully decarbonise our energy sector, which would be essentially decarbonising the economy, means we get cheaper energy every time. FERC is really uniquely positioned to be the agency that can really drive the decarbonisation, certainly of the electric sector, and maybe beyond that as industries would demand a lot of cheap electricity are going to find it much more attractive to be in the U.S. if we make cheap energy around. 

The reason for FERC specifically beyond that is that — and I’ve had this conversation, I had this conversation with every Democratic candidate running for president last year — all of them were saying the climate was a top priority, and I was saying to them, OK, if education was your top priority, I would care who you were going to name as your secretary of education. If health care was your top priority, I’d care who you were going to [put] in as your head of HHS. If climate is your top priority, there is no single agency that controls this. If you don’t actually have a government structure that is organised to address climate, where’s the maximum point of leverage? That’s FERC.

Gizmodo: What is FERC not currently doing that it should be doing if it wants to be serious about decarbonisation?

Casten: The first and most important thing we will need to nominate someone to the fifth seat. None of what FERC can and should do is possible until we get the ability to have three two votes with people who are going to prioritise the interests of energy consumers over the interests of energy producers.

That’s number one. What FERC can do is two huge things. Everybody knows we have a massive, massive problem building electric transmission lines in this country. That’s a permitting problem. That’s a siting problem. That’s a control problem. That’s a cost allocation problem. Almost all of those things could be addressed in the FERC context.

The second big thing — and this is in my Energy Price Act — is that when FERC was created, their mandate included a number of things, including but not limited to making sure that energy is affordable. FERC actually has it within their existing power to make sure that as we build new generation, as we build new transmission, we prioritise generation sources that are not going to harm future generations. They could do that right now, they don’t need any Congressional action. They just need a nudge.

Gizmodo: I want to bring Megan Thee Stallion back into our discussion. She’s rapped about going hard for kids, her mama, and her granny. I think that gets at some of the things you’re talking about here, which is this idea of needing to keep prices reasonable for folks today but also decarbonising the grid for future generations. What would it look like for FERC, or really the federal government, to go hard for all those folks?

Casten: There’s no tension between those things. Absolutely none. Energy Secretary Granholm has said we need to build essentially as much electricity generation in this country as we already have in order to fully decarbonise. That’s a lot of money. But what are we going to build to decarbonise? We’re going to build solar, we’re going to build wind, we’re going to build geothermal, we’re going to give businesses an incentive to invest in more efficient appliances and better-insulated homes. All those things have no marginal fuel cost. There is nobody who has a solar panel on the roof who says I better check the price of power today to see if it makes sense for me to run my solar panel.

I can’t emphasise that point strongly enough: We have sat on our thumbs and done basically nothing for 30 years based on a completely false premise that we can’t afford to act. The reality is that every time we’ve gone out — and I say this from personal experience, I built 80 clean energy projects — I never built a project because my customer cared about the environment. I built those projects because my customers want cheaper, more reliable energy. Let’s embrace that and give people what they want. And, oh, by the way, that will also look out for future generations.

But this is the rub: That will create a massive transfer of wealth from energy producers to energy consumers. Every single American is an energy consumer, but there are strong vested power groups in this country that represent energy producers.

Gizmodo: Can you tell me a little bit about that? You talked on Dave Roberts’ Volts podcast last week about this wealth transfer idea that would also transfer wealth from red states that produce fossil fuels to blue states. What does that wealth transfer look like and how do we make sure that when we do this transition, it’s fair?

Casten: Anybody who’s been in the clean energy industry has deep scars on their back from fighting electric utilities. The electric utilities would fight back with every tool in their tool kit to protect their investors. We have seen in real-time over the last three decades play out.

To your question about a just transition, we saw what happened when we went from relying on one muscle power to mechanical power. When the coal industry went from men in mines to longwall mining [a mechanised form of mining], they got a lot more energy with a lot fewer people.

I don’t want to name names, but a colleague of mine who is a Republican who represents one of these affected communities and is generally a good guy, I said to him, you know, if I came up with a bill where you lost $US100 ($135) and I gained $US1,000 ($1,350), I can completely understand why you wouldn’t vote for the bill and say, I’m delighted to say that we have grown the economy. The way we address that political problem is by saying, OK, if we’re going to, in my example, create $US900 ($1,215) of economic value, let’s make sure that we equitably allocate that economic value so that my Republican friend can say good news, we’ve grown the economy by $US900 ($1,215) and $US450 ($608) of it is sticking with us.

Gizmodo: I know I have to let you go to your next interview soon, which I assume is with Billboard or Fader, so let’s do a quick lightning round of questions. Are you a Megan Thee Stallion Fan? Would you consider yourself a hottie?

Casten: I’d like to believe my whole family considers me one of the hotties.

Gizmodo: I hope so for your sake, too.

Casten: One of my first concerts was Public Enemy. I’ve always skewed more towards the more socially conscious hip hop. I love Kendrick Lamar. But, I can go with some of the poppier, sexier stuff as well.

Gizmodo: I’m a big Kendrick fan. I actually talk about him in a class I teach on climate communication to show how you can use storytelling to talk about big issues like federal drug policy and the Reagan war on drugs in ways that are much more engaging than a textbook.

Casten: I have a Ph.D. thesis I will someday write. Biggie Smalls “Gimme the Loot” is chapter two of Bruce Springsteen’s “Meeting Across the River.” If you listen to “Gimme the Loot” and “Born to Run,” it’s the same character. Go listen to the two lyrics.

Gizmodo: Is this your dream after Congress?

Casten: Exactly, a degree in music criticism.

Gizmodo: Once you’ve fixed FERC, this seems like a good retirement project. OK, so we’ve some great Congressional floor charts, including your album covers for Hot FERC Summer and Fercalicious. Is there someone on your staff who comes up with these?

Casten: We have some exceptional staff. They never cease to amaze me with the stuff they bring together. Somebody asked what it would take for one to own one of those charts. I assured them that the National Archives is going to put them in a climate-controlled box next to the Constitution. It’s for posterity.

Gizmodo: Fair. It’s where they belong. It’s amazing that Hot FERC Summer is also part of the Congressional Record. Some of the coverage has been funny as well. The Independent’s headline was “Congressman Attempts to Make Climate Action Relevant.” This is an informative thing that you’re doing, but also takes some degree of just being willing to put yourself out there. How do you feel about having your legacy including Hot FERC Summer?

Casten: If at the end of this people care about FERC and FERC gets fully staffed and they do this stuff and the price that I pay is a little bit of minor embarrassment? I’ll take that every day of the week. It’s not a hard choice.

Gizmodo: OK, last question. Megan asked “eco-friendly hotties” in 2019 to come up with ideas for how to protect the climate. She shared a list of ideas, which was cool. I ask you as somebody that is doing their part as an eco-friendly hottie pumping up FERC, what can other eco-friendly hotties do to agitate for good things to happen at FERC?

Casten: I’m going to be honest: A lot of my colleagues, even on my side of the aisle, have not worked as hard on this issue as they should. Youth activism, making people realise that this is something that voters and people care about — and not just that you have to do the right thing, but you better do something that’s smart. That’s really good. Keep up that pressure up.

What we do as individuals makes us feel good, but what matters is what we do collectively. The most important thing people can do is to figure out how you take whatever social capital you have and leverage it. I’m a member of Congress. I can leverage that by getting people to care about these things and passing bills.

Take out your recycling; turn out the lights when you leave the room; if you can afford to buy an electric car or solar panels, do that. But that ain’t enough. Right. Figure out how to leverage the groups you’re in because it’s going to take all of us pulling in the same direction.

Gizmodo: Eco-friendly hotties band together. That’s words to live by.