TWO NEW COMMISSIONERS were appointed on Wednesday to the state Department of Public Utilities, one a West Virginia University law professor who wrote a book last year critical of that state’s allegiance to coal, and the other a vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation.
The two new faces – James Van Nostrand and Staci Rubin – will join incumbent commissioner Cecile Fraser in running an agency best known for its regulation of the state’s powerful electric and gas utilities but which also has oversight responsibilities related to pipelines, rideshare companies, the siting of energy facilities, and safety activities of the MBTA.
It’s an agency that rarely reaches out to the public and talks about what it does. That may change under its new leadership and a governor who says she “is committed to transforming the DPU” into an agency focused on achieving the state’s climate goals, facilitating renewable energy growth, and building a modern power grid.
The press release announcing the appointments said the agency must also integrate equity into its decision-making process, build agency expertise, and “open its doors to the public through modernized communications tools and meaningful community engagement in proceedings.”
Van Nostrand made a good first impression, calling a reporter back while he was temporarily stranded in an airport making his way from Florida to Boston on Tuesday.
In a brief interview, he said he had no special connection to anyone in the Healey administration. He indicated he became aware of the DPU openings and made sure his name got bandied about in the right circles. He said he was eager to move out of academia and follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a utility regulator in Iowa in the 1970s.
The Healey administration press release describes Van Nostrand as a clean energy advocate who headed the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University and prior to that worked three years as executive director of the Pace University Energy and Climate Center. He worked for 22 years on energy issues at private law firms in the Seattle area and prior to that spent five years at the New York Public Service Commission.
His book, “The Coal Trap: How West Virginia Was Left Behind in the Clean Energy Revolution,” takes aim at the political establishment in the state, including Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, for putting the interests of the coal industry above the state’s residents.
“My book focuses on the years 2009 through 2019 – a period I refer to as ‘the lost decade’ – and describes how political leaders in West Virginia were caught in the coal trap,” Van Nostrand writes on his website. “They failed to address the realities of the inevitable and permanent decline in the fortunes of the coal industry and neglected to provide the leadership necessary to manage the transition of the state’s economic drivers away from coal. Instead, at every turn during the ‘lost decade,’ the interests of the coal industry were placed above the economic and environmental well-being of West Virginia’s citizens.”
His West Virginia University webpage says he has published and lectured on emissions trading and strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, energy policy, renewable energy, utility rates and electric restructuring plans, environmental justice, and utility mergers and acquisitions.
Rubin, the vice president of environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, is well known in Massachusetts environmental circles. She has been active on transportation, climate, and waste issues and previously worked at the DPU as senior counsel and a hearing officer.
Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said there is a lot of excitement about her appointment.
“She’s pretty fearless and really understands the imperative to decarbonize and to address equity and affordability. She’s one of those leaders who sees the big picture,” Turnbull Henry said.
Ann Berwick, who served as chair of the DPU under former governor Deval Patrick, said the two commissioners match up well with the DPU’s new legislative priorities. Previously, the priorities were safety, reliability, and affordability; a 2021 law added security, equity, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“This looks like a DPU that will have climate in its DNA and not just in its statutory charge,” Berwick said.
DPU commissioners are paid $150,000 a year and the chair is paid $156,000.
The two new commissioners will serve coterminous with Healey. Fraser was appointed in 2017 and became acting chair in January with the departure of Matthew Nelson. Fraser will remain in the chair’s post until Van Nostrand starts on May 1. Rubin will replace Robert Hayden, who is leaving April 8. The appointments were made by Rebecca Tepper, Healey’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs.