Will Ohio’s Nuclear Energy Bribery Scandal Put Climate on the Ballot?

Democratic candidates hope the Republican-led legislature’s $1.3 billion bailout of two nuke plants will help them flip seats in November.

by | Oct 20, 2020

Ohio Democrats hope a corrupt nuclear energy bailout will help them win state house seats. (Photo: Getty/Ty Wright)

Democratic candidates hope the Republican-led legislature’s $1.3 billion bailout of two nuke plants will help them flip seats in November.

Craig Swartz, a Democrat running for the Ohio State Senate seat for District 26, has strong opinions about the need to combat climate change. Ohio “needs to get to zero emissions as quickly as we can,” he says, and he has several ideas for how to do it.

Swartz sees natural gas as a bridge to renewable energy (a position the Biden campaign shares). He also likes the idea of space-based solar farms, which involve putting solar power plants into orbit to collect the sun’s energy in space and transmit it to Earth.

Whether voters would find this a compelling platform in a typical election year is anybody’s guess. But this year energy is one of the state’s hottest election topics, thanks to the biggest political corruption scandal in Ohio history, and some climate action-minded Democratic candidates are taking advantage of that to try and flip seats in the state’s solidly Republican legislature.

This story is part of DRILLED Local’s 2020 election coverage.

In July, the Justice Department indicted then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-District 27, on federal racketeering conspiracy charges for taking $60 million in bribes from energy firm FirstEnergy, via payments to a non-profit Householder controlled. In return, Householder used his position as the state’s most powerful legislator to secure the 2019 passage of a ratepayer-funded, no-questions-asked, $1.3 billion bailout of two FirstEnergy nuclear power plants near Lake Erie.

The law, known as House Bill 6, also subsidized two aging coal-fired power plants, and weakened the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency mandates.

Polls have shown that a majority of Ohio residents support overturning House Bill 6, and Gov. Mike DeWine, after initially supporting the law, has belatedly allied with a bipartisan group of lawmakers calling for its repeal before the election. But time is running out.

Ohio legislative districts are heavily gerrymandered to favor Republican candidates. So Swartz, who lives about a hundred miles southwest of Cleveland in Upper Sandusky, tends not to speak directly to the issue of climate change as he campaigns.

Instead, Swartz likes to tell people that he learned long ago as a boy scout to leave a campsite cleaner than he found it, and people should take that same attitude toward the planet. “That’s a value that transcends party lines,” he says. “Republicans can relate to that because they are often hunters or into the outdoors.”

In addition, says Swartz, the House Bill 6 scandal means he can talk about reforming Ohio energy policy without constituents’ eyes glazing over. “What this this has done for me is it made House Bill 6 a household world.”

Swartz recently called out his Republican opponent, Bill Reineke — who currently represents District 88 in the Ohio House of Representatives — for not returning FirstEnergy campaign donations. The Akron-based energy company, which has spun off the two nuclear plants since House Bill 6’s passage, gave Reineke a $3,500 campaign contribution just weeks before Householder was arrested in July.

“Only two Ohio legislators, two Republican legislators, have said they’re going to return their PAC money from FirstEnergy — give it to charity or whatever,” Swartz said in a video posted to his campaign’s Facebook page in early September. “Bill hasn’t done that yet. Still waiting on that one, Bill.”

The FirstEnergy scandal is also factoring into Democrat Alan Darnowsky’s run for the District 65 House seat in Clermont County, east of Cincinnati. The Republican candidate, Jean Schmidt, has been silent on whether she supports the repeal of House Bill 6, and Darnowsky has tried to capitalize on that.

“This is something you should at least have an opinion on,” he says. “You’re bailing out two nuclear plants. We don’t even know if the plants need to be bailed out.”

Householder handpicked Schmidt to run for the seat, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to support her primary run. Schmidt declined to comment for this story.

Reineke co-sponsored House Bill 6, and has a history of blocking climate action with laws that experts say have slowed the development of wind energy in the state, such as allowing local communities to override turbine siting decisions by the state’s independent energy siting board. Recently, Reineke co-sponsored legislation that would have allowed Ohio utilities to opt out of the state’s mandatory targets for increasing their renewable energy portfolios.

Although that bill died in the senate, House Bill 6 has significantly weakened Ohio’s clean energy targets and programs.

Before House Bill 6, the state had required that its utility companies gradually draw more and more power from renewable sources, with a target of 12.5% by 2027. House Bill 6 slashed that mandate by about a third, to just 8.5% by 2026.

Ohio also used to require that utilities help their customers find ways to reduce energy use, via rebates and incentives to replace less efficient appliances and other equipment. The goal was a 22% drop in energy consumption from 2008 levels. But under House Bill 6, that target has dropped to 17.5%.

Reineke did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite voter support for repealing House Bill 6 and widespread outrage over the bribery scandal, state Republicans’ aggressively partisan redrawing of district lines means that Swartz, Darnowsky, and other reform-minded candidates still face an uphill climb for office. According to an analysis by the Associated Press, in 2018 Republicans won 75% of the seats in the state legislature on just 52% of the vote.

Still, there are modest signs that voters are starting to recognize that Republicans have too much power in the state. Democrats managed to flip some House seats in 2018, leading candidates like Swartz to begin running for seats that were once considered so safely Republican that they drew no challengers.

“The future is clean energy,” says Swartz, who wants to see House Bill 6 rewritten with a provision that a natural gas plant or solar farm be added to the properties near Lake Erie where the nuclear plants are located. He believes at least some of the nuclear plant’s 1,400 workers could then transition to working for those new facilities.

“We all want to save the jobs.” he says, “This would be a way to save the jobs while not just throwing money at 50-year-old facilities that are going to die anyway.”

Correction 10/19/20 4:50pm ET: This story updated to reflect that Jean Schmidt declined to comment for this article.

Nancy Averett is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist who writes about science and the environment. Her work has appeared in Discover, Scientific American, Audubon, Sierra, Hakai and other outlets. @nancyaverett

Nancy Averett
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