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Ohio’s utility bribery scandal could cost the public billions more than previously thought


Ohio’s notorious House Bill 6 was passed in 2019 as the result of a shadowy racketeering campaign that poured $61 million into campaign contributions, bribes, and dark money groups, according to the FBI — all to ensure that four unprofitable coal-fired and nuclear energy plants could continue operating. The $1.3 billion cost of the bailout bill known as HB6 was passed on to utility customers. 

But new research suggests that the true public cost of HB6 is likely far higher. In addition to the nuclear and coal bailout, the bill also diminished the state’s standards requiring utilities to increase their energy efficiency. According to the new report, even if the state were to see modest gains in energy efficiency every year, Ohioans could avoid more than $2 billion in excess utility bills and $7 billion in health care costs stemming from pollution. With HB6 still on the books, however, such savings seem unlikely. Despite the nationwide scandal stemming from the legislation — and the arrest of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder — efforts to repeal the bill have stalled, as have more voluntary efforts by utilities to implement efficiency programs.

The report, which was issued last month by Gabel Associates, an energy consulting firm, calculates the statewide benefits of an annual energy savings of 1, 1.5, and 2 percent by Ohio-based utilities from 2021 to 2030. While the 1 percent scenario would save Ohioans $2 billion in utility costs and $7 billion in health care costs, the 2 percent scenario would increase those amounts to a staggering $7 billion and $19 billion, respectively. The study’s authors contend that all these possibilities are within reach for the Buckeye State.

“The scenarios that we had looked at are already happening nationally, so they’re not really far out of reach,” said Brendon Baatz, vice president of Gabel Associates. “They’re very realistic and possible in Ohio.” 

The estimated health care costs are due to the effects of fossil fuel pollution on human health, including respiratory illnesses, asthma, and increased morbidity. Significant nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide emissions from power plants could all be avoided if the state had greater energy efficiency, leading to lower health care costs. In the 1.5 percent energy savings scenario, more than 140 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, 103,000 tons of sulfur dioxide emissions, and 93,000 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions would be avoided. The savings estimates didn’t include the benefits of decreased particulate matter pollution, which can have similar effects on human health. 

Even setting aside environmental benefits, the analysis found that energy efficiency programs would provide 2.7 to 3.6 times more benefit than cost for Ohio. 

The study was commissioned by the Ohio Hospital Association, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, the Ohio Environmental Council, Ceres, E2, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The primary authors, Brendon Baatz and Isaac Gabel-Frank, calculated the costs by using past utility energy program data, forecasts for electricity usage, and models estimating economic benefits and pollution costs.

Before HB6, Ohio’s utilities were required to to reach a cumulative energy efficiency savings by 2027, but with its passage that standard was watered down in such a way that the utilities were able to meet the diminished goals in 2020, and end their efficiency programs early. Hypothetically, the utilities can still voluntarily propose energy efficiency programs to their regulator, the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, but the Commission has so far denied two utilities that have tried to do so, citing uncertainty over the future of HB6.

Randi Leppla, vice president of energy policy with the Ohio Environmental Council, said that the unclear future of HB6 was no reason for the Commission to stifle voluntary programs. “In our opinion, there is the opportunity and ability for the Public Utilities Commission to approve voluntary programs,” she told Grist. “That is outside of what was repealed by House Bill 6.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Ohio’s utility bribery scandal could cost the public billions more than previously thought on Apr 2, 2021.

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