WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's nominee to head a little-known energy commission has become the latest appointee drawn into the contentious debate over climate change.
The nomination of Ron Binz to be chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has sparked enough opposition that environmentalists have hired a public-relations firm to aid his Senate confirmation. Binz has drawn the ire of coal-industry interests for advocating policies that mining companies said encouraged the conversion of power plants to natural gas when he served as Colorado's top utility regulator.
"He's not a regulator, he's an activist," Amy Oliver Cooke, director of the Energy Policy Center at the Independence Institute in Denver that advocates for limited government, said in an interview.
The Green Tech Action Fund, a San Francisco-based non- profit that backs green energy technology, has hired VennSquared Communications, a Washington-based political consultancy, to advocate on Binz's behalf. The fund is affiliated with the Energy Foundation, which reported almost $100 million in revenue in 2011 and has connections to hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, an Obama fundraiser and opponent of TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Binz's nomination is the latest flashpoint in the battle between fossil-fuel and clean-energy groups as Obama makes tackling climate change a key goal of his second term. FERC nominees don't usually have the support of public-relations firms, and the push for Binz follows an Internet campaign this year by groups including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council to support the nomination of Gina McCarthy, now the Environmental Protection Agency's administrator.
The debate over Binz also underscores a growing challenge for nominees in general. In the past, a candidate lined up a key lawmaker to help win Senate confirmation. Now, with Congress in gridlock over many issues, activists both for and against nominees to lead agencies are conducting campaigns.
"Every aspect of public policy is lobbied these days, and with the difficulty of getting executive nominees confirmed, it doesn't surprise me at all that this has occurred," Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in a phone interview.
While the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hasn't scheduled a hearing to consider Binz's nomination, conservatives and the mining industry in Colorado have already taken aim at him for backing legislation that they say forced coal plants to switch to natural gas at consumers' expense. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page called Binz "the most important and radical Obama nominee you've never heard of."
Binz declined an interview request, saying he hasn't granted interviews since Obama announced his nomination June 27.
His allies have been prepared for the controversy, however. Hours after the White House announced its choice for the FERC chairman, VennSquared issued a statement with plaudits from the chairmen of Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., Xcel Energy Inc. and Lola Spradley, a Republican former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives.
VennSquared's support is an "insurance policy" so stories about Binz are accurate when "anybody with a blog can sit out there and make an assertion," Michael Meehan, the firm's president, said in an interview.
VennSquared doesn't lobby, and it doesn't have plans for an Internet campaign to support Binz, according to Meehan. The firm is helping to connect media outlets with people who have worked with Binz or who support his nomination, he said.
The public-relations push for Binz surfaced as environmental groups and fossil-fuel industries duel over government's role in protecting air and water.