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Environment & Energy

Should Voters Decide Nuclear Bailout Bill? New Group Joins the Fight

photo of someone signing a petition
The group Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts must collect more than 265,000 valid signatures to get a referendum on the energy bill before voters.

The battle lines have been drawn for the fight over Ohio's new energy law.

A ballot group is looking to collect signatures statewide to ask voters to overturn the law that bails out nuclear power plants. But a new group has formed to argue in favor of the ratepayer subsidies.

Ohio voters could soon face an important decision regarding the future of the state's new energy law, without even looking at a ballot.

To put a referendum on the 2020 ballot, those who want to throw out the law would have to collect more than 265,000 valid signatures – which is a big number in a very short period of time. And it means you might be approached by a person with a clipboard in the next two months asking for your support.

The new energy law created through House Bill 6 bails out Ohio's two nuclear power plants through $150 million in annual subsidies. That money is generated through a new 85 cent charge on everyone's monthly electric bills.

Gene Pierce is spokesperson for Ohioans against Corporate Bailouts, the group trying to stop the new law. "This discourages investment into Ohio's energy markets because of an unfair subsidy that distorts the marketplace," he said. 

The new law also creates a monthly charge of up to $1.50 to subsidize struggling coal plants, one of which is located in Indiana.

"This props up obsolete, super polluting power plants. Some of them aren't even in Ohio," Pierce said.

Carlo LoParo is spokesperson for the newly-formed Ohioans for Energy Security. They're the group that opposes overturning the law, and they’re calling on people not to sign a referendum petition so it doesn't go before voters in the first place.

"House Bill 6 is very important to Ohio's energy economy and it's very important to Ohio's energy grid," LoParo said. "What it does is it protects 4,000 Ohio energy jobs, protects Ohio's primary source of clean energy generation, our two nuclear power plants. And it ensures the integrity and security of our energy grid."

The pro-nuclear subsidies argument relies heavily on a message of anti-foreign government interference.

LoParo's group put out a commercial that ominously states, "They took our manufacturing jobs, they shuttered our factories, now they're coming for our energy jobs." It claims the attempt to put a referendum on the ballot is heavily funded by the Chinese government. "The Chinese government is quietly invading our American electric grid," the ad continues. 

This echoes a talking point House Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford), a major supporter of the law, brought up just minutes after the bill was passed. 

LoParo says the referendum group is backed by natural gas companies and that a Chinese-government owned bank has invested heavily in those companies. "Their only concerns are their own economic self-interests," LoParo said. They want to kill the Ohio-based competition, control the grid and monopolize energy production in our state." 

Piere, with the referendum group, takes issue with that claim. When asked if his group is getting money from the Chinese government, Pierce said, "That's a ridiculous question. We will follow all Ohio campaign finance reporting requirements and disclose our donors as required by law." He points out many Ohio groups have been vocal in opposing the law. 

Neither group has disclosed its financial backers. Neither LoParo nor Pierce have named specific donors. 

Opponents of the new energy law have speculated that FirstEnergy Corp, and its former subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions which owns the nuclear plants, would have a significant reason to put money behidn LoParo's group. Here's LoParo on that question, "We're not taking money from companies that are heavily invested from foreign governments. The other side can't say the same." When asked if that includes FirstEnergy Corporation, LoParo responded, "Well we'll abide by all the laws that govern organizations like ours and ballot issue committees."

The new energy law also weakens requirements to invest in renewable energy and scraps energy efficiency programs operated by utilities.

The referendum group submitted summary language that must be approved by the Ohio Attorney General before they can start collecting signatures and they’ll likely have to use professional paid signature gatherers to do it. They must gather the more than 265,000 signatures from voters in half of Ohio’s counties by October 21.