A Tribute to FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur
To be here today to gratefully acknowledge Cheryl LaFleur for her public service is a high honor.
Cheryl is a model regulator. A lawyer who is not just a due process jockey, she is an expert on the facts of the industries she regulates. One among a commission which (usually) has multiple members, she knows there are certain hills to die on—and also knows not to die on every hill. A decisionmaker who is decisive, she also permits developments to unfold in the marketplaces under her watch without needless intervention.
I’ll just share a couple of stories of my interactions with Cheryl, drawing on my time as a state commissioner and a leader of NARUC.
First, I’m not sure Cheryl has ever declined an invitation to sit down and talk through issues of mutual concern with her state counterparts. She is sort of like a walking, talking embodiment of cooperative federalism—not in the sense that she always defers to states, but that she is always willing to be in conversation with their regulators.
Last year, Cheryl came to the biannual gathering of Western state energy officials and regulators known by its inscrutable acronym, CREPC-WIRAB. It’s the West’s best-kept secret because of that acronym. At these events, we have come to expect an average V.I.P. to swoop in, give remarks, and then leave. There can be an almost palpable sense of remove in such appearances.
But Cheryl stayed—and not only that, plunged into the conversation. The topic was PURPA. The panelists gave their presentations, and in the next hour a friendly, unscheduled debate ensued between Cheryl and state regulators on the topic. It was one of those rare, agreeable disagreements—a conversation where the give-and-take actually made people reflect on their positions. I walked away from it with a sheaf of notes—the better to prepare the next time.
Knowledge is power, and Cheryl knows a lot. She is probably the most studied regulator I’ve ever met. She not only knew a lot coming in, but she keeps learning. Anyone who has sat in Cheryl’s proximity at any event knows that her notepads are afterwards a spiderweb of notes. She has a reputation for sharing her views, but she also has one for listening.
And, yet, here is one of the striking things about Cheryl. There must always be a temptation on the part of a person so knowledgeable to slyly control the regulatory process through obscurantism. But Cheryl is generous with her knowledge. Even as she observes the weakness in one’s positions, she provides the advice on how an obscure Commission order two decades prior might be the skeleton key to remedying it.
Cheryl is also devastatingly funny, candid, and engaging. I know a lot of knowledgeable people who are terribly boring. Cheryl is not among them. She adheres to the advice of one of the best regulators of all time, Alfred Kahn, who wrote a memo to his staff, requesting: “May I ask you to try very hard to write Board orders and, even more so, drafts of letters for my signature, in straightforward, quasi-conversational, humane prose—as though you are talking to or communicating with real people.” Out West, there’s a saying that admonishes: “Don’t baffle me with bullshit.” Cheryl does not. Nor does she infantilize a person. She does not appease the mob. She is willing to be fired for making unpopular decisions.
I would finally be remiss if I did not acknowledge Cheryl’s unflagging support for of those of us who have worked to accomplish the expansion of electricity wholesale markets in the Western United States. Someday, for this chapter in history is not yet concluded—but someday, a case study will be written about how this development was a model for regulation, and of a Commission and commissioners who knew what to say and not to say, what to do and not to do, at the right moments, to secure an outcome that is one of the most tangible steps in the past several decades toward a more functional Western grid. Suffice it to say now that it all could have been snuffed out if the Commission had made a misstep. Several years ago, Cheryl remarked at the CAISO’s Annual Symposium that it was like watching an old Western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, where you take all three of those things in stride, optimistic for a positive conclusion.
And progress is still being made, with Cheryl’s encouragement. Always ready with a quip, Cheryl has noted that the chosen acronym for the Western Interconnection’s potential Extended Day Ahead Market, EDAM, was at least a cheese that did not have any holes in it.
Cheryl, you have been a mentor and friend to so many. We will miss your presence on the Commission.