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Pro-Nuclear Bailout Group Joins Battle Over Ohio's Energy Law

FirstEnergy Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio.
Ron Schwane
FirstEnergy Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio.

A group is looking to collect signatures statewide to ask voters to overturn the law that bails out nuclear power plants, but now a competing 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. Which 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," Pierce says.

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 says.

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 to put it 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. What it does is it protects 4,000 Ohio energy jobs, protects Ohio's primary source of clean energy generation, our two nuclear plants. And it ensures the integrity and security of our energy grid," LoParao says.

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

In an ad produced by Ohioans for Energy Security, the narration says: "They took our manufacturing jobs, they shuttered our factories, now they're coming for our energy jobs."

LoParo's group 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."

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 in those companies.

"Their only concerns are their own economic self-interests. They want to kill Ohio-based competition, control our energy grid, and monopolize energy production in our state," LoParo says.

Pierce, with the referendum group, takes issue with that claim. When asked if his group is funded by the Chinese government, Pierce said: "That's a ridiculous question. We will follow all Ohio campaign finance reporting requirements, disclose our donors as required by law."

Pierce points out that many individuals and groups based in Ohio have been vocal in their opposition of the new energy law.

Neither group has actually disclosed their financial backers and both LoParo and Pierce have not named specific donors.

Opponents of the new energy law have speculate that FirstEnergy Corp and its former subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions, which owns the nuclear plants, would have a reason to put money behind LoParo's group. 

"I can tell you this, we're not taking money from companies that are heavily invested from foreign governments, the other side can't say the same," LoParo said.

Does that include FirstEnergy Corporation?

"Well, we'll abide by all the laws that govern organizations like ours and ballot issue committees," LoParo says.

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.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.