Opinion | When Utility Money Talks


The monopoly gas and power companies are lucrative enterprises by their nature, and their rates are generally under direct government control. Using money to influence politicians and regulators is nothing new. But there is reason to be especially alert to it now, because these companies too often are standing in the way of the switch to clean energy that the country so desperately needs.

The Ohio case looks to be truly malodorous. Mr. Householder appears to have won his high office largely because the power company, FirstEnergy, and its affiliates were funding his political operation under the table, using a “nonprofit” shell corporation that he controlled. That allowed him to pump huge sums into the campaigns of allied candidates who, after winning their legislative seats, voted to give him the speakership. Then they voted in favor of his highest priority, the bailout bill.

Prosecutors claim that $400,000 of the power company’s money went directly into Mr. Householder’s pocket as he was doing the company’s bidding in the Ohio Statehouse. However, much of the money was used to pay for deceptive advertising to advance the bailout bill and to protect Mr. Householder and his allies from angry voters. Prosecutors contend that his operation also hired agents to interfere, sometimes physically, with a petition drive to repeal the bailout law.

Why was the power company seeking bailouts in the first place? Across the country, nuclear and coal plants are at risk of closure because they cannot compete with natural-gas plants and wind and solar farms. The coal shutdowns are good news for the climate; the nuclear shutdowns are more problematic, since these plants are among the nation’s largest sources of clean electricity.

Congress could stop the nuclear closures with a big climate bill, but Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is a big supporter of the coal industry and will let no such bill through that body. Until Congress acts, saving the nuclear plants with state subsidies may be a good idea. But states need to drive a hard bargain in these deals, paying only as much as the power companies really need and doing so only after carefully weighing alternatives for cleaning up the grid.

That is not what happened in Ohio. Instead the legislature passed a malign law that charged ratepayers $150 million a year to fund the bailouts, with no credible auditing of how much was really needed. While the law did throw a minor sop to the solar industry, it also gutted most of Ohio’s standards on energy efficiency and clean energy, which were weak to begin with.

It is now clear that as the Ohio deal went down, the F.B.I. was all over the statehouse. Mr. Householder’s associates were caught on tape deciding how to spend the gusher of dark money. Gov. Mike DeWine has called on the legislature to repeal this crooked bill. In a final act of disrespect for the people of Ohio, Mr. Householder refused to resign as speaker; House members were forced to vote him out, which they did on Thursday, 90 to 0.



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