Analysis: Paying to warm the planet. Corrupt utility law forces Ohioans to make climate worse

By: - September 19, 2023 5:00 am

A field of coal is seen near the Gavin Power Plant on September 11, 2019 in Cheshire, Ohio. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

It seems crazy that people would be forced to pay to make themselves and their planet sicker. But thanks to a crooked utility law that the Ohio General Assembly refuses to repeal, that’s just what’s happening in the Buckeye State.

The notion that rising greenhouse gasses could warm the planet goes back at least to the 1930s. And as cars and power plants have belched ever more carbon dioxide and other gasses into the atmosphere, scientists have warned in increasingly dire terms that we’re at a tipping point beyond which we would be doomed to suffer at least some of its ill effects.

Some have been determined to ignore the nearly unanimous scientific consensus that human-caused global warming is happening. But this year, the alarms blared.

June through August saw the hottest global temperatures on record, and January through August saw the second-hottest. And, as predicted, extreme weather accompanied the sweltering temps, including the longest-lasting tropical storm in Africa, heat waves in Europe, Asia and the United States, a deadly wildfire on Maui and a deluge in Libya that erased entire towns and killed more than 11,000.

For those of us in the Midwest, we repeatedly choked this summer on unprecedented wildfire smoke from massive blazes far to the north in Canada. The consequences of warming the planet literally came to our door.

With increasing levels of urgency, climate scientists are saying we’re going to have to live with bad effects from climate change no matter what. But they say what we do right now will have a great impact on how disastrous those effects will be.

“Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote in its 2023 AR6 Synthesis Report. “Human-caused climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. This has led to widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people. Vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected.”

But for some reason, Ohio ratepayers are being forced to spend hundreds of millions propping up two 68-year-old coal-fired power plants that supposedly couldn’t survive without the subsidies. Also baffling is that one of the carbon-spewing plants Ohio ratepayers are subsidizing is far down the Ohio River, in Madison, Indiana.

And more strangely still, the subsidies are still in place even though they’re the product of what might have been the biggest corruption scandal in Ohio History

Former House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenville, is serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison for his role using more than $60 million in utility money to shepherd a House Bill 6, a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout, through the legislature.

Akron-based FirstEnergy paid out the vast majority of the money and the vast majority of the bailout was intended to prop up two Northern Ohio nuclear plants it was spinning off. But in the wake of the arrests of Householder and four others, the nuclear subsidy and another that went solely to FirstEnergy were repealed. 

Despite its corrupt origins, however, the law providing the subsidies remains on the books — a fact that federal prosecutors decried as Householder and former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges were being sentenced. 

And while most of the subsidies have been repealed, large amounts continue to flow to the aging coal plants owned by a consortium of utilities. The largest is 40% owner Columbus-based AEP, which also contributed $900,000 to the effort to pass the utility bailout.

The state’s official consumer watchdog, the Office of Consumers’ Counsel, estimates that so far, ratepayers have been forced to pony up $218 million to keep the two aging plants billowing out smoke. The agency also estimates that so far, that smoke has contained 42 million tons of carbon dioxide, 31,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 24,000 tons of sulfur dioxide — all gasses linked to the warming that’s ravaging the planet.

AEP spokesman Scott Blake was asked about the company’s funding of the bailout. He was also asked why ratepayers should be forced to subsidize uncompetitive coal plants, especially given that we appear to be experiencing a climate-change tipping point. He only addressed the first question.

After AEP learned of the criminal allegations against the Ohio legislator and others relating to (the bailout), AEP, with assistance from outside advisors, conducted a review of the circumstances surrounding the passage of the bill,” Blake said in an email. “Management does not believe that AEP was involved in any wrongful conduct in connection with the passage of HB 6.”

Basav Sen is climate policy director for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. He said the fact that a corrupt bailout bill forces Ohioans to pay to make climate change worse is an extreme example of an old dynamic. Power generators, fossil fuel producers, manufacturers and — at least until recently — carmakers all have been profiting from the polluting status quo and so the climate has taken a back seat.

“They obviously have zero interest in winding these activities down,” Sen said in an interview last week. “It’s a classic case of private interest and the broader public interest colliding — because it’s obviously in all of our interest that we eliminate the greenhouse gas pollution and the other kinds of pollution as well.”

He added that it’s particularly unfortunate when utility companies insist on propping up the most polluting form of generation.

“I as an electric consumer, I’m a captive customer,” Sen said. “There’s one utility operating in my area. It’s a monopoly. I can’t live without electricity. I don’t really have control over that.”



Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.