As expected, the Bush administration named former Texas utilities regulator Pat Wood as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission succeeding Curtis Hebert who is leaving the agency Aug. 31.

A Republican ally of President George W. Bush, Wood will take over Sept. 1. Hebert resigned to become an executive vice-president with Entergy Corp., a New Orleans utility holding company.

Wood became one of five FERC commissioners after he was confirmed by the US Senate in May. At that time, political insiders expected Wood to be named chairman of the agency, which regulates the wholesale electricity market and the interstate gas pipeline industry.

During Hebert’s brief tenure, the commission came under intense criticism and congressional scrutiny for its handling of California’s electricity crisis. FERC still must decide the controversial issue of how much to order in refunds to California from generators who are alleged to have overcharged for wholesale electricity sold in the state.

California Gov. Gray Davis is demanding $9bn in refunds, but a FERC administrative law judge said the actual amount may be closer to $1bn. Also before the agency is a case involving El Paso Corp., Houston, which has been accused of violating rules requiring arm’s length relationships between its gas pipeline and marketing company. El Paso has denied the allegations.

Wood also takes over at a time various congressional committees are considering expanding the agency’s responsibilities to include some oversight of the interstate electric transmission system. Some in industry and congress have proposed giving FERC authority to intervene when states block interstate lines, and Bush’s energy plan includes a proposal to give the federal government eminent domain to override states’ authority to halt new lines.

As former chairman of the Texas Public Utility Commission, Wood helped shepherd the state’s electricity law through the state legislature. Competition got off to a shaky start after a pilot program set to begin June 1 was delayed three times due to computer problems. Some participants have filed complaints with the PUC. The Texas market is scheduled to open to full competition in January.

The president can name the FERC chairman without Senate confirmation. Hebert’s resignation leaves a seat open on the five-member commission.