Ohio GOP slows push to repeal law tied to bribery scandal

Source: By Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 17, 2020

Ohio lawmakers continued hearings yesterday on bills that would repeal an energy law tainted by federal allegations of a $60 million bribery scheme.

The 15-member Select Committee on Energy Policy and Oversight heard testimony from the state’s top utility regulator and an official with grid manager PJM Interconnection but took no action.

The pace of repeal proceedings has frustrated Democrats who have pushed to quickly undo the law, H.B. 6, which authorized $150 million a year in subsidies for Ohio’s two nuclear power plants and ended the state’s clean energy programs.

“It has been 56 days since we learned about the largest bribery scandal in Ohio history,” state Rep. David Leland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said Monday during a news conference. “Now Republican leadership is blocking our numerous attempts to repeal H.B. 6.”

Two bills being weighed by the committee would repeal H.B. 6 and restore previous utility laws, including reviving Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards (Energywire, Sept. 8).

Two nearly identical bills to repeal H.B. 6 were filed more than a month ago in the wake of federal charges against former House Speaker Larry Householder (R) (Energywire, July 22). The repeal bills together have 59 co-sponsors, more than enough votes to clear the House.

But Republican leaders have blocked procedural moves in the House and in the committee to bring the measures up for a vote.

Some Republican legislators have sought to focus the committee hearings on how a repeal would affect consumer utility bills. In particular, they’ve taken aim at the costs of Ohio’s renewable energy standard and utility energy efficiency programs, which they claim are greater than the costs of nuclear and solar subsidies authorized by H.B. 6.

Sam Randazzo, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) and a longtime critic of clean energy mandates, told committee members that utility energy efficiency programs have cost Ohioans $1.6 billion since they were implemented. Meanwhile, he downplayed the energy cost savings associated with the programs, casting doubt on measures used to evaluate their effectiveness.

Randazzo also cited other challenges of “unwinding H.B. 6,” including whether PUCO can quickly reimplement utility efficiency programs, which are being phased out.

“I don’t think it is possible, in a practical sense, to put the toothpaste back in the tube in the time frame implicit in H.B. 738 and H.B. 746,” Randazzo said in testimony to the committee.

‘The process was tainted’

The costs and benefits of clean energy programs has played heavily into the debate over H.B. 6, even before the bill was passed and signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine (R) last summer.

Clean energy advocates say their analysis shows that a repeal of the bill would yield huge savings for consumers and cleaner air.

Critics of H.B. 6 say it’s misleading to exclude energy efficiency cost savings from the equation, noting that the electricity saved through efficiency programs is energy that doesn’t have to be generated from dirtier, more expensive power plants.

What’s more, they say, debate over the costs and benefits of previous utility laws takes the focus off the process that led to passage of H.B. 6.

“House Bill 6 needs to be repealed and replaced because whether former House Speaker Householder ever gets convicted or not, it’s clear from what we’ve seen that the process was tainted,” Robert Kelter, an attorney for the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, said in an interview following yesterday’s meeting.

While Democrats have pushed for swift repeal, other state leaders, including DeWine, have sought to also replace the law at the same time.

If the Legislature chooses to replace H.B. 6, a key question they’ll need to answer is whether to reauthorize subsidies for the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants.

Evelyn Robinson, managing partner for state government affairs at PJM, cited analysis last year by the grid operator showing that retirement of the Ohio nuclear plants and two units of a Pennsylvania nuclear plant could save consumers in PJM a combined $1.6 billion in energy costs because it would enable lower-cost natural gas-fired generation to enter the market.

The analysis was based on deactivation notices filed with PJM by FirstEnergy Solutions (now Energy Harbor). The company subsequently withdrew the notices after the passage of H.B. 6 in Ohio and steps taken in Pennsylvania to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Democrats and some Republican legislators have questioned whether subsidies are needed to continue running the Ohio nuclear plants. They cite an $800 million stock buyback announced by the company not long after H.B. 6 was signed into law.

Legislators have also sought more information on how H.B. 6 benefited Energy Harbor’s former parent, Akron-based utility holding company FirstEnergy Corp.

On Monday, utility regulators opened an investigation into the political and charitable spending by FirstEnergy utilities, including whether any money that was given to help pass H.B. 6 or to keep a referendum to undo the law off the ballot last fall was funded directly or indirectly by ratepayers.

The company has until the end of the month to provide information to the commission.