FirstEnergy is behind hundreds of pages of largely ghostwritten comments seeking bailouts for the utility’s failing coal and nuclear power plants that were submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
FERC received a flood of comments in response to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR), where he proposed what amounts to a multi-billion dollar bailout of privately-owned, old and uncompetitive coal and nuclear power plants at consumers’ expense. Greentech Media described the response to Perry’s plan as an “onslaught of opposition” in one headline. RTO Insider similarly found “widespread opposition” to Perry’s proposal in the public comments submitted to FERC.
Yet despite the backlash from many states, grid operators, a coalition of energy providers, and even former FERC commissioners, the Trump administration highlighted support for Perry’s proposal after FERC’s public comment period closed.
“We are still reviewing comments, but it is clear that there is a significant amount of support for the Secretary’s proposal,” said a response from Shaylyn Hynes, a press secretary for the Department of Energy.
Supporters of Rick Perry’s bailout plan have financial ties to FirstEnergy
The Energy and Policy Institute found that much of that “support” comes in the form of hundreds of pages of largely ghostwritten and similarly-worded comments signed by dozens of corporate, non-profit, union, local government and school officials as part of a campaign hastily orchestrated by FirstEnergy. What these commenters share in common is that they all rely in some way on FirstEnergy’s money, or its trickle-down effect on local communities.
As Taylor Kuykendall, a coal reporter for SNL, previously reported:
Several of the supportive comments, including comments from Babcock & Wilcox, Campbell Transportation Co., Ingram Barge, North Branch Energy Inc., Industry Terminal and Salvage, FreightCar America, Camelot Coal Co., and J and J Construction Co. Inc., included very similar language, with slight modifications to fit the nature of the business and its relationship to FirstEnergy and, in some cases, other affected coal utilities.
It turns out that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
All of the four dozen comments reviewed by the Energy and Policy Institute included, for example, some close variation of the following language:
Error-filled form letters “filed by” FirstEnergy on behalf of its supporters
John Funk, a reporter who covers energy and utilities for The Plain Dealer, reported that the comments submitted to FERC on Perry’s bailout plan included:
… an avalanche of responses, many containing identical language, on behalf of FirstEnergy from local governments and other groups located near FirstEnergy’s Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear power plants, and its last large coal plant, the W.H. Sammis plant in Jefferson County near Steubenville.
“The FERC docket noted that one filing, from the United Way of Jefferson County, had been filed by FirstEnergy itself,” according to Funk. “The filing disappeared on Thursday.”
Avi Zevin, an attorney for Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University, tweeted that the comments filed by FirstEnergy for the United Way of Jefferson County were only “half done”:
Zevin provided a picture of the comments to prove it:
Kate Sedgmer, executive director of the United Way of Jefferson County, told The Plain Dealer that the comments had been withdrawn due to an “inadvertent filing error” and would soon be re-filed by the organization. This message appeared when a link to her organization’s “half done” comments was clicked on FERC’s website:
No re-filed comment from the United Way of Jefferson County could be found in the FERC docket at the time this article was published, which was after the public comment period on Perry’s proposal ended.
Comments from the Pleasant Area Chamber of Commerce were also submitted to FERC with the file name “1st Energy FERC comments.PDF,” then marked as “erroneously filed” and access was again restricted to “Privileged.” The comments were then resubmitted with “FERC comments.PDF” as the file name.
FirstEnergy similarly filed comments on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1289. This filing was again marked as “erroneously filed” and replaced with a new filing without FirstEnergy fingerprints so obviously displayed.
Other comments from the Clairsville, Ohio-based Utility Workers Union of America Local 350 and Cleveland-based Building Laborers’ Union Local 310 were also labeled as “filed by” FirstEnergy.
Bainbridge Chemical Company’s comments were similarly marked as “filed by” FirstEnergy. Miles Farmer, an attorney at NRDC, pointed out how Bainbridge did not even bother to “insert” the right information in some sections of the form letter:
A FirstEnergy backed industry group generated comments to FERC
A link to“TAKE ACTION NOW!” to “Help Preserve Energy Jobs” is prominently displayed on the front page of the website of Waterways Council, Inc. It once led to an external website where comments to “Help Save Coal Jobs” could be submitted to FERC. The group’s board of directors includes David Frederick, manager of fuel and transportation procurement for FirstEnergy.
Officials from two other companies – Campbell Transportation Company and Ingram Barge Company – with seats on the Waterways Council’s board submitted comments to FERC that included some nearly identical language mixed with company specific information. Campbell Transportation Company alone submitted more than a dozen nearly identical comments signed – and in some cases unsigned – by various executives and employees.
One file named “Jason C W Powell AP Campbell Transportation” included the standard form letter language with some Campbell-specific info inserted in the right places, but the signature line was never filled out correctly:
Yes, Rick Perry’s bailout plan will benefit FirstEnergy
Perry tweeted a few weeks ago that his plan to bail out old and uncompetitive coal and nuclear power plants is, “Reasonable – Asks @FERC to consider and address market distortions in the markets that they regulate – not to help specific companies.”
However, Perry at the same time tweeted endorsements of his plan from several executives in the coal, nuclear, and utility industries – including one from Charles E. Jones, the president and CEO of FirstEnergy. A subsidiary, FirstEnergy Solutions, faces possible bankruptcy as its remaining coal and nuclear power plants struggle to compete in electricity markets that are shifting towards natural gas and renewables, such as wind and solar power.
Meanwhile, FirstEnergy is also pursuing unpopular bailouts for some of its power plants through the Ohio General Assembly and West Virginia Public Service Commission. In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich has spoken out against a bill to bail out FirstEnergy’s Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants. In West Virginia, FirstEnergy’s proposal to bailout its coal-fired Pleasant Station has drawn more than 2,500 public comments in protest and just over 50 in support.
Will FERC listen to the widespread public opposition to big utility bailouts, or will it bend to the will of FirstEnergy and put consumers at risk?
Links to examples of the apparently ghostwritten comments submitted to FERC:
Local government and school officials:
Benton-Carroll-Salem Local School District – Oak Harbor, Ohio
City of Belmont – Belmont, WV
Ottawa County Board of Commissioners – Port Clinton, Ohio
Pleasant County Schools – St. Marys, West Virginia
South Side School Districts – Hookstown, Pennsylvania
Cleveland Branch NAACP – Cleveland, OH
Jefferson County Township Association – Richmond, OH
LEADERship Ashtabula County – Ashtabula, OH
Ottawa County Improvement Corporation – Oak Harbor, OH
Penn-Northwest Development Corporation – Sharon, PA
Pleasant Area Chamber of Commerce – St. Marys, WV
Pleasant County Development Authority – St. Marys, PA
United Way of Beaver County – Monaca, PA
United Way of Jefferson County – Steubenville, OH
United Way of Lawrence County – New Castle, PA
Corporate executives and/or employees:
Babcock and Wilcox Company – Barberton, OH
Bainbridge Chemical Company – Valdosta, GA
Camelot Coal – Zelienpople, PA
Campbell Transportation Company – Houston, PA
DenoxDirect, LLC – Denver, CO
Freightcar America – Chicago, IL
Industry Terminal and Salvage – Industry, PA
Ingram Barge Company – Nashville, TN
McClymonds Supply & Transit Co., Inc. – Portersville, PA
North Branch Energy – Coraopolis, PA
Richmond Mill, Inc. – Steubenville, OH
Wheeling and Lake Erie – Brewster, OH
Building Laborers Local 310 – Cleveland, OH
IBEW Local 29 – Pittsburgh, PA
IBEW Local 50 – Highland Springs, VA
IBEW Local 245 – Rossford, OH
IBEW Local 246 – Steubenville, OH
IBEW Local 272 – Midland, PA IBEW Local
IBEW Local 459 – Johnstown, PA
IBEW Local 777 – Middletown, PA
IBEW Local 1194 – LaGrange, OH
IBEW Local 1289 – Wall, NJ
IBEW Local 1413 – Oak Harbor, OH
IBEW Local 2357 – Mount Clare, WV
UWUA Local 350 – Clairsville, OH