A bitter political battle has been joined in Ohio over the future of two nuclear power plants. The fight features an amazing collection of issues of the day, including China, clean energy, foreign political interference, and dark money. Advocacy groups on both sides are throwing hard punches, and yesterday one of them launched a $1 million television ad campaign in the state.
At issue is Ohio House Bill 6, signed into law by Gov. Mike Dewine in July. The law grants a $150 million, taxpayer-funded bailout to First Energy Solutions, which operates the nuclear plants. It would subsidize Ohio’s shrinking coal energy by $50 million. The loser in the plan is the natural gas industry, which stood to take over the nuclear plants’ share of power production.
The advocacy group against the law, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, has launched an effort to get more than 260,000 signatures to trigger a referendum that could overturn the law. On the other side, Ohioans for Energy Security, which made the TV ad buy, is fighting to protect the legislation.
Those who support overturning the law represent a mix of strange bedfellows. Obviously the natural gas lobby would prefer to have nuclear competition out of the way, but the somewhat libertarian case that bailouts are bad is also being made, as is the questionable environmental argument against nuclear power generation, and the more sustainable one regarding coal subsidies.
Not to be outdone, proponents of the law argue that nuclear is a cleaner and cheaper alternative to natural gas, that killing the plants will destroy jobs, and perhaps most in keeping with the current national moment, that China is funding the opposition to the law in an attempt to meddle in American politics.
In terms of the clean energy argument, there is something close to scientific consensus that nuclear is the only alternative to fossil fuels that currently can make any serious dent in carbon emissions. Opposition to it has for decades been fueled by near-hysterical attempts to paint it as potentially catastrophic. This is a fabrication that the oil and natural gas industries are happy to propagate.
On the other hand, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts makes a reasonable free market argument that bad practices by First Energy Solutions should not be rewarded by taxpayers ponying up to save their bacon, even though by most estimates energy prices will be slightly lower if the nuclear plants remain in operation.
By far the most contentious aspect of this fight regards who is funding each of these efforts. Both organizations are LLCs, which are not required to name their donors. When asked about it, each group simply says they are obeying all applicable laws. It may very well be that both are AstroTurf entities acting at the behest of the powerful interests who stand to win or lose.
This is where China comes in. Bill Siderwicz, who runs the natural gas company, Clean Energy Future, canceled plans to build a $1.1 billion plant in the state after HB6 passed, saying the law was the reason. Siderwicz is involved with Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, and his company has received financing from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, run by the Chinese government. This lies at the root of Ohioans for Energy Security’s allegations of foreign interference.
It is a testament to the truly global world in which we live that China should be a part of this battle at all, but those who support the law have a compelling argument to make that handing any interest or control over American power generation to a foreign adversary — not a foreign company, but the government of China itself — is a dangerous proposition.
In its modeling of potential cyber threats from bad foreign actors, the military views potential disruptions of American power grids as among the most serious. Such disruptions could result in economic devastation and considerable loss of life.
The referendum is a long shot, but not an impossibility. Ohioans deciding whether to sign the petition demanding it, which will be proffered to them by paid canvassers, should give serious thought to who is paying the people ringing their doorbell.
If Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts wants to put these citizens’ mind at ease, they should disclose their donors, and make clear whether the Chinese government is playing a role here. If they do not, denizens of Cleveland, Columbus, and the rest of the state have good reason to be skeptical, and to leave the law their duly elected officials crafted in place.