Barry Smitherman, former Texas energy official, in running to chair FERC

Former Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman. (Kin Man Hui/San Antonio Express-News)

WASHINGTON – Former Texas Railroad Commission chairman Barry Smitherman is under consideration to be the next chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Smitherman, a Houston lawyer and former Harris County prosecutor, met with President Donald Trump’s transition team ahead of the presidential inauguration last month about taking over the agency, according to a source close to the talks who did not want to be identified because the appointment was still under consideration.

Between four years at the railroad commission and another seven-year stint at the Texas Public Utility Commission, Smitherman, 59, has spent the past decade as one of the most powerful officials in Austin on energy issues.

A close ally of former Governor Rick Perry – the  nominee for  Secretary of Energy – Smitherman recently set the gossip mill running when he left his position as an attorney at the Houston law firm Vinson & Elkins.

But Smitherman could have competition. Also in the running for the chairman’s seat is current FERC commissioner and acting chairman Cheryl LaFluer, a former power executive who was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2010.

An announcement is expected soon.  Former FERC chairman Norman Bay – another Obama appointee – resigned from the agency last week.

With no chairman and only two of five commission slots currently filled, FERC does not have the authority to approve new pipelines and transmission projects and is limited in its regulatory authority over the oil and gas and power industries.

A FERC spokesman said there was no timing set on when a new chairman would be named.

In Texas, Smitherman helped lead the “all of the above” energy strategy long pushed by Perry.

Under his watch at the PUC, the agency embarked on a $7 billion transmission project to move electricity from wind farms in West Texas and the Panhandle to the population centers around Houston, Dallas and Austin.

While at the railroad commission, Smitherman developed a reputation as a champion of the state’s oil and gas industry, frequently falling under criticism from environmentalists who argued the hydraulic fracturing boom sweeping the state was not being adequately regulated.

A former Harris County prosecutor, Smitherman ran unsuccessfully in 2014 to succeed now Governor Greg Abbott as Texas Attorney General.