Cleveland Plain Dealer: The outrageous blank check Ohio just wrote on behalf of the state’s gas customers

It’s not clear if such rankings are kept, but any list of the most pro-utility states – and pro-utility governors – would surely give Ohio, and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, a place near the top of the scoreboard.

Latest example: The governor’s decision to sign into law Amended Substitute House Bill 201, which, according to the pithy comment of a legislator who opposed the measure, state Sen. Kent Smith, a Euclid Democrat, “ allows gas utility companies to build pipelines anywhere under the guise of economic development. ”

“That means,” he added in a Dec. 31 guest column, “the utility could build a bunch of pipelines to dozens of potential industrial sites, hoping that a company moves into just one of those sites and the utility gets a new customer.”

But here’s the rub: Even if those pipelines are in fact never used by new customers won’t matter on gas consumers’ monthly bills: HB 201 requires ratepayers to cover the cost of any gas lines built, plus any planning or development work that may have preceded pipeline construction and its regulatory approval — all, essentially, on speculation.

The new law offers no clear explanation for why consumers, rather than utility investors, should pay for gas lines that might never benefit consumers or the state’s economic development goals. Meanwhile, the “Intel” argument — that the state needs pipeline-equipped sites — falls flat when one considers that Intel Corp. wasn’t influenced by that, and in fact aims to use all-renewable power at its Ohio mega-factory site.

However, there’s no question about one point: The hurriedly added pipeline provisions in HB 201 — a bill that started out life as (and still contains) a prohibition on Ohio adopting California’s strict auto emissions standards or trying to ban cars based on their fuel source — will plump up gas companies’ profits.

As’s Jeremy Pelzer and Jake Zuckerman reported, the bill DeWine signed Dec. 28 would let Ohio gas utilities “charge Ohio’s 3.7 million gas customers up to $1.50 per month for as long as five years to extend gas lines to sites that could potentially be used for megaprojects, even if no buyer has been lined up yet.” That could work out to as much as $5.55 million per month.

The $1.50 monthly charge was already in law but applied only to narrowly defined and authorized actual investments — which have dwindled in number (and costs on customers’ bills).

“Columbia Gas currently charges its customers 63 cents per month on their monthly bills. Both Dominion and CenterPoint charge their customers 3 cents per month,” Pelzer and Zuckerman reported.

In other words, natural gas utilities were in search of a bonanza, and got one, thanks to Ohio’s obsequiously pro-utility elected officials — and the pipeline amendments rushed into being over a roughly 36-hour period. Among those who opposed the gas utility giveaway was the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, whose members are among the state’s biggest consumers of natural gas.

True, there is a gossamer-thin stipulation that, to qualify, prospective sites wound have to be supported by JobsOhio, the state’s economic development quango, its affiliates, or the state Development Department.

Still, those agencies are hardly immune to executive — or legislative branch — nudging, i.e., lobbying. And the procedural template that HB 201 creates amounts to a bypass of rate-case procedures by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio that, for all their weaknesses, offer some rate-setting safeguards for Ohio consumers.

The General Assembly’s excessive deference to utilities has already stoked the FirstEnergy Corp./House Bill 6 scandal and its still-ongoing federal corruption investigation. Among consequences: the convictions and imprisonment of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and former Republican State Chair Matthew Borges, and the indictment of former PUCO Chair Samuel Randazzo, who awaits trial and is entitled to the presumption of innocence.

DeWine signed HB 6 the same day the General Assembly passed it in July 2019. And while the General Assembly has since repealed parts of HB 6, it still requires Ohio ratepayers to shell out more than $153,000 a day to subsidize two money-losing coal-fired power plants, one in Indiana. HB 6 also squeezed Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards in provisions that also remain in effect.

The passage of House Bill 201 is evidence, were more needed, that what the utilities want from the General Assembly, and the governor, they usually get. That is, what should be a ratepayer-utility balance at the Statehouse is anything but. As a matter of fairness, that needs to change.