Energy agency shutdowns less than meets the eye

Despite the government shutdown and budgetary stalemate in Washington, most federal energy work goes on. It’s business as usual.

At the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency issued a statement, saying, “If Congress has not passed a new funding resolution by Sunday, January 21, 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will utilize its prior year budget authority to continue operations starting Monday, January 22, 2018. The Commission will stay open until further notice.”

A FERC contingency plan updated in December notes, “Upon a hiatus in appropriations FERC will immediately utilize and exhaust all carryover funds to support operations for a limited term. Management will project the span of time in which operations would be supported using carryover funds and execute financial plans accordingly.” The plan points out that all five FERC commissioners are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, “and thus will continue working despite any lapse in appropriations.”

If FERC runs out of money before the shutdown ends, the commission will “do an orderly shutdown of non-excepted activities.” At worst, according to the FERC plan, the independent regulatory and safety agency will “retain 49 employees and 18 contractors,” from a base of about 1,500 employees on board. “Retained employees and contractors would equal 4.6 percent of total employees,” according to FERC.

FERC categorizes the 49 excepted employees as two supporting the commission itself, 19 in hydro and LNG inspections, four in “monitoring of electric reliability and threats to jurisdictional infrastructure,” three involved in monitoring markets, 11 in legal and enforcement, and 10 in commission infrastructure.

A Department of Energy question and answer document says the agency also has a filed shutdown contingency plan, dating to September 2011, following a near shutdown earlier that year. DOE says it reviewed that plan on Jan. 19.

A short shutdown is also unlikely to disrupt DOE operations. The agency said, “Most of DOE’s appropriations are multi-year or no-year,” meaning they are not dependent on new appropriations from Congress to keep running. DOE said it expects “federal employees to continue to report to work as scheduled. A prolonged lapse in appropriations may require subsequent employee furloughs,” but some employees would continue to work “if there is an imminent threat to human life or protection of property….”

As of the writing of this post, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had not made a public statement about what it will do in the latest government shutdown. A document on the Nuclear Energy Institute web site back in the fall of 2013, the last government-wide shutdown, said on October 10, nine days after the shutdown that lasted 17 days, that the agency had run out of funds carried over from prior budgets.  The NRC then began to lay off “non-emergency reactor licensing, reactor license renewal amendments, emergency preparedness exercises, reviews of design certifications or rulemaking and regulatory guidance.” The NRC said it expects to furlough 3,600 of 3,900 employees.

According to a compilation by Wikipedia, the federal government has faced nine shutdowns that resulted in furloughing workers: 1980, 1981, 1984, 1986, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2013, and this year’s shutdown. Most were short-lived, with the longest Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996, a total of 27 days.

— Kennedy Maize