SC House advances controversial energy reform bill; fight anticipated in Senate

Post and Courier
March 27, 2024

By Nick Reynolds

COLUMBIA — Kicking off debate on a sweeping energy policy reform bill that lawmakers have painted as a solution to the state’s looming energy crisis, Belton Republican Rep. Jay West — one of the bill’s principal architects — talked his colleagues in the state House of Representatives through what the legislation was but, mostly, what it wasn’t.

It was not, he said, a reprised version of the Baseload Review Act, the 2007 piece of legislation that laid the groundwork for scandal in the lead-up to the V.C. Sumner power plant debacle that cost ratepayers millions of dollars for a failed expansion of nuclear power.

It was not a blank check for utilities companies to extract funds from ratepayers, West said. Nor did it lay the groundwork for backroom deals between industry insiders and the regulators that oversee them — even as the legislation offered utility executives the ability to meet off-record with regulators to “promote their agenda,” as former Public Service Commissioner Tom Ervin wrote in his resignation letter to state officials earlier this month.

And it was not a wink and nod to a diminished Public Service Commission — proposed to shrink from its current seven-member roster to three — to fast-track the joint coal-to-gas conversion of the shuttered Canadys Power Plant between Dominion Energy and the state-owned power company Santee Cooper through the public approval process.

All the bill seeks to do, West said, is bring an end to the bureaucratic blockades that will delay the state from potentially bringing on nearly 2,000 megawatts of power into the state’s stressed power grid at a time its population and economy are exploding.

“The truth is the (environmentalists) lost at the PSC on Canadys, and now they’re trying to hold our state’s energy security hostage,” West said on the House floor.

Despite a resounding 88-21 vote to advance the bill on March 27, questions continue to fester around the policy, which faces an uncertain future in a more scrupulous Senate.

The Conservation Voters of South Carolina launched a $150,000 television and digital ad campaign earlier this month ripping the bill as a giveaway to utilities companies. Voices for Cooperative Power, a Washington, D.C. industry group, spent thousands on a series of targeted Facebook ads encouraging South Carolinians to support the bill, according to Meta advertising figures.

“Growing demand for power puts South Carolina’s electric grid at risk,” wrote one advertisement. “Urge your representatives to protect reliable energy!”

Environmental groups have raised questions over new restrictions on utilities’ acreage they say will have a disproportionate impact on solar energy projects. Some have raised eyebrows over language moving the Office of the Consumer Advocate under the banner of the Office of Regulatory Staff, which is responsible for facilitating major energy infrastructure projects.

The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and its counterpart, the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, have taken opposite positions on the bill, with the latter suggesting the legislation could potentially lead utilities to raise rates to finance unproven technologies—like small nuclear reactors — which would be overseen by a research group that is accountable to the state legislature.

Others raised concerns over the reduction in the size of the Public Service Commission, which critics argue could lead to a reduced ability for lawmakers to practice oversight over major utilities projects.

Gov. Henry McMaster told reporters earlier this week he did not see reducing the size of the PSC as essential to the bill’s success, while several former members of the PSC told The Post and Courier it would actively damage the commission’s ability to scrutinize projects and their impacts from multiple perspectives.

“If we continue to give away our power as individual legislators, we are wasting our time here,” Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said before an amendment he sponsored to maintain the size of the PSC was defeated by a narrow 56-54 vote.

Reducing the size of the PSC and increasing their pay was essential to reforming the state’s energy policy, West said. In no way, he said, did it eliminate the existing public oversight process. And any project that utilities pursue, would still need to gain the approval of the PSC and, if challenged, the South Carolina Supreme Court before moving forward.

The primary thrust of the changes, he said, is to reign in a PSC he claims have “stepped out of line” in recent years.

“The intent here is to put forward the best and most qualified candidates,” West said of the changes. “The truth is we haven’t had many people show interest in serving in the recent screenings. And some of those that have shown interest have been motivated to be activists, rather than impartial jurists.”

In this case, some feel the objective of the bill is not to judge the projects impartially, but to rebuild the public review process in-favor of projects that are in the state’s best interests — in this case, new natural gas infrastructure — in the same manner the state sought to do with nuclear energy nearly two decades prior.

“It paints the commission into a corner,” Buddy Atkins, a former state public service commissioner, said. “They have to approve these projects that are essentially mandated in this bill. So it really is a reenactment of the failed Baseload Review Act.”

The bill now faces a perfunctory third reading vote in the House before moving onto the Senate. Its fate there is unclear. The Senate declined to take up its own version of the bill in committee last week, leaving the House bill as the likely only option ahead of the April 10 crossover deadline. And leaders in the upper chamber have already expressed some skepticism of the legislation’s aims.

“I am suspicious of efforts to roll back the regulatory protections that were put in-place just a few years ago,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, told reporters earlier this month. “I am suspicious of efforts to fast-track things. I am resistant to efforts to weaken ORS’ powers and to change their mandate. I think there will be things for us to look at and consider.”

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