September 20, 2017
By David Travis Bland
With a race looming for three Public Service Commissioner seats, incumbents have the weight of the V.C. Summer Nuclear project and its implosion on their shoulders.
The seven-member Public Service Commission (PSC) is tasked with allowing or disallowing what utilities want to do. If SCE&G wants to hike rates to pay for a nuclear reactor, the PSC has to approve that increase, which they did multiple times since the construction at the Fairfield County site began in 2008.
The race for the PSC seats won’t entail your normal political jockeying for the public’s heart. Candidates vie for the favor of state senators and representatives who sit on the State House’s Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC). That committee recommends candidates to the full House and Senate, which vote on who should get the position.
The screening process for the Public Service Commission seats was suspended until further notice after the V.C. Summer nuclear project crumbled in August, with Santee Cooper and SCE&G calling off the $9 billion-and-rising project.
“It felt like under the circumstances we need to suspend it at this time,” said Oconee Sen. Tom Alexander, who chairs PURC.
During that suspension, more testimony for or against commissioner candidates will be taken and filing for candidacy may be opened again. The Legislature has until May of 2018 to put commissioners in place, and they’re on track to do that, Alexander says.
If Tom Clements’ testimony on the incumbent commissioners, even the ones not fighting for their seats, was considered, they’d feel more burn than a nuclear fuel rod.
“All the commissioners need to step down because of their public performance,” Clements says.
Clements has represented various groups critical of the nuclear project as well as the PSC and their regulation of SCE&G. He’s now with the group Friends of the Earth.
“If they have strength of character, they should announce they’ll all resign,” he says.
Bob Guild of the Sierra Club has called the commissioners “nuclear Kool Aid” drinkers and called for a “Public Service Commission that doesn’t rubber stamp rate hikes and cost overruns.”
Other activist groups like South Carolinians Against Monetary Abuses, aka SCAMA, sought to effect a quicker resignation of sitting commissioners by passing out old Western style wanted posters that depicted members of the PSC and declared that they should fork over their $171,000 salaries.
The three commissioners up for reappointment are Elliott Elam, Jr., Lib Fleming and Nikki Hall. Commissioners represent districts that correspond with the congressional districts. Elam serves District 2, which encompasses Aiken, most of Lexington, and some of Richland County. Fleming holds a seat for District 4 that includes much Greenville and Spartanburg counties. District 6, spanning central South Carolina to the Lowcountry, is represented by Hall.
Appointed by the State House in 2004 to the commissioner job, Fleming was the chair of the PSC in 2008 when SCE&G first came for approval of the V.C. Summer project.
“She has great weight on her shoulders about this project,” Clements says. “Like the rest of them, she never explored in depth what was going on.”
Hall, who assumed commissionship in 2010, has been “there when there were problems developing,” Clement asserts.
None of the commissioners responded to a request for comment. Their administrative coordinator sent Free Times to the Public Service Commission’s spokesperson, who did not comment.
Commissioners have come before state House and Senate committees investigating the reasons for the nuclear project failure. At Senate committee testimony, a spokesperson for the PSC explained the process by which SCE&G comes before the PSC and how the commission involves the public. They didn’t account for why they approved rate hikes and other requests from the Cayce-based utility over the course of V.C. Summer’s construction. At a later House committee meeting, members of the PSC sat before lawmakers but gave no testimony, as the committee was concerned that questioning the commissioners could put them at risk of lawsuits that ratepayers would have to pay for.
At that House hearing, lawmakers questioned whether the PSC needs to actually exist, saying commissioners are only empowered to approve decisions that have already been made by the utilities and other regulators.
Sen. Brad Hutto, who sits on the screening committee, says the suspended appointment process will give time for the House and Senate committees to do their job when it comes to the causes of the nuclear project’s failure.
“The idea was let’s get all the information available,” he said. “It may lead to pertinent information for the current screening process for current and potential candidates [for the PSC seats].”
Others are seeking to change how commissioners get put into place.
The Stop The Blank Check coalition brings together groups such as AARP SC, the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters. In the group’s assessment the current legislative process in which PURC recommends commissioners for the legislature to approve is susceptible to conflating the public interest with the interest of the utilities’ coffers.
“We support reform of the regulatory process for all utilities to insure protection of ratepayers and the general public interest,” Stop The Blank Check said in a statement.
To enact that reform, the group wants commissioners appointed by the governor instead of the legislature. They also want anyone associated with shaping or carrying out the regulatory process to have zero ties with utilities and to not have received any money from energy providers. Stop the Blank Check stops short of endorsing any PSC candidate or calling for incumbents to step down. They do, however, call for the disbandment of PURC.
“[PURC creates] a closed system in which the same people pass the laws that determine how utilities are regulated, hand pick the regulators, and then annually review the performance of the regulator,” said Lynn Teague of the League of Women Voters.
Appointment of commissioners by the governor and disbanding PURC is the wrong way to enact regulatory changes, in Hutto’s assessment.
“I think we got a system set up that allows for public input and testing and screening,” the Orangeburg senator said. “I would not be in favor of putting the appointment of the commission in the hands of one person.”
Hutto adds that, when screening begins again, incumbent commissioners are going to get their fair shake but also will be asked about decision making during the last decade.
No matter how PSC members get their job, Clements is concise.
“We need some new blood that’s going to represent the public interest,” he says.