Battle over energy bill includes $2.4M in ads to sway public

Drama, political pressure and money is churning around an energy bill that could cost consumers $300 million each year in surcharges on their electricity bills and could help save two aging nuclear power plants from closing.

Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, unveiled House Bill 6 on April 12. Since then, it’s led to an all-out battle: 142 witnesses testified, more than $3-million spent on TV and radio ads to sway public opinion, and a dramatic walk-out by Democratic lawmakers from a hearing they said was unfair.

“In a perfect world we’d probably be looking at some sort of a vote next week but this is not a perfect world,” Householder said on Thursday. “So, we’re going to do everything we can continue to discuss and make changes to the bill as they come along and see where we end up.”

He added that he doesn’t expect substantial changes to the bill.

Related: Big money pushes for energy bill; consumer groups oppose it

The bill has the strong backing from First Energy Solutions, which owns Davis-Bessie and Perry nuclear power plants along Lake Erie, local governments near the plants, and steelmakers such as TimkenSteel.

Generation Now, a dark money group, has spent more than $2.76-million on TV and radio ads in favor of the bill while opposition groups have spent more than $300,000 on ads, according to records kept by an ad buying firm. Householder said he doesn’t know who is funding Generation Now.

Ohio’s political leaders – Householder, Gov. Mike DeWine and Senate President Larry Obhof – have expressed support for taking steps to keep the nuclear power plants open, in large part because the plants generate power without carbon emissions.

Related: Ohioans could be charged more fees in their electric bill

DeWine and Obhof have yet to weigh in on the specifics of House Bill 6.

But a long line of opponents have given testimony.

Environmentalists don’t like that the bill seeks to wipe out renewable energy standards and energy efficiency programs that have been in place for a decade. And they aren’t happy that coal-burning plants could qualify for ‘clean energy’ grants.

Free market think tanks such as Americans for Prosperity and Buckeye Institute don’t like that the bill would allow the government to pick winners and losers – doling out grants to help some companies, rather than letting market forces do the work.

Natural gas industry interests don’t like that it would bail out nuclear energy – its competition in electricity generation.

Some manufacturers don’t like the surcharges, the anti-competitive approach or the overall uncertainty of what the bill may bring.

“In sum, this bill does not protect consumers, but rather it protects select generators and utilities,” said Terri Sexton, environmental and energy manager for Navistar in Springfield who testified on behalf of the Ohio Manufacturers Association. “It is anti-competitive, anti-consumer, and not good for our state.”

The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, which opposes the bill, estimates that Ohio’s investor owned utilities have collected more than $15 billion from customers in extra riders since 1999. HB6 would create a new rider that would cost $3 billion over the next decade.

AARP Ohio, headed by former lawmaker Barbara Sykes, called on its members to tell their lawmakers to vote against it.

“Ohio House Bill 6 would saddle all Ohioans with a new, unfair and unnecessary annual $300 million nuclear bailout tax,” the group said.

To get the bill to pass, Householder may need votes from the House Minority caucus, which is led by Akron Democrat Sykes, daughter of AARP Ohio’s Barbara Sykes.

Will Emilia Sykes urge her 38 members to vote with Householder or her mom on House Bill 6?

“Yes, we talk about House Bill 6 in a lot of houses,” Emilia Sykes said. “What we will do as a caucus, and as I am the leader of the caucus, is make sure we provide members with as much information as they need to make the vote that they feel is appropriate for their district.”

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