Dominion Energy has tried selling state lawmakers on its purchase of SCANA Corp. directly, and it has been rebuffed.
So the companies are taking their combination to the people instead.
Dominion and SCANA have ramped up their marketing push in South Carolina in recent days: They're running a new slate of TV and radio spots. They're buying ads on Facebook and in the newspaper. And they're reaching out to their own to sell the deal.
They play up Dominion's offer to customers of South Carolina Electric & Gas, the power company SCANA owns: Dominion is willing to pick up part of the tab for SCE&G's failed nuclear project, they say. Power bills will go down, and customers will get a refund check.
Online and over the air, the message to ratepayers is clear: Call your lawmakers.
"Tell Representatives 'Lower My Rates,' " says an ad on Facebook.
Prominent lawmakers, for their part, have taken up a hard line. They’re sorting through who should pay for the unfinished nuclear reactors SCE&G was building, and they say Dominion's offer doesn't go far enough. Politicians including Gov. Henry McMaster say customers should stop paying altogether.
Under Dominion's plan, the typical SCE&G customer's bill would fall by about $7, but they would still pay on average $20 a month for the project. Over the next two decades, they'd pay a total of $4,000.
Customers would also get a refund check worth, on average, $1,000, covering most but not all of the roughly $1,400 they've paid over the past decade.
"We always encourage people to speak up, and we think right now legislators need to hear what their constituents think," Dominion spokesman Chet Wade said. "We just think people should speak up and make their voices heard, and if they don't agree with us, then they should do that, too."
In SCANA's Cayce headquarters, employees have heard similar requests in recent days to call their lawmakers. A series of company-wide emails have urged workers to ask their representatives not to "roll the dice" on the company's future. Retirees are getting a similar note.
The Legislature is considering a measure that would cut off SCE&G’s $37 million-a-month nuclear collections while courts and regulators decide how to divvy up the nuclear project's costs. That bill could kill the Dominion deal.
An email last week from SCANA finance chief Iris Griffin, for instance, laid out the financial hardship the company fears if it's forced to eat the nearly $5 billion tab for the nuclear project. Griffin wrote that while lawmakers have called the company’s concerns a "bluff," she thinks bankruptcy and higher electric rates are real possibilities.
"You've helped previously by contacting your representatives in the South Carolina Legislature, and we need your help again," Griffin wrote.
Dominion chief executive Thomas Farrell followed up days later with a note to SCANA's CEO that was forwarded to the rest of the company: "People at the Statehouse need to hear how important this is. They need to hear it clearly and confidently from everyone who cares about the future of SCANA."
"Please let your colleagues know that tenacity is a core competency at Dominion Energy!" Farrell continued.
SCANA spokesman Eric Boomhower defended the messages, saying the company routinely tells workers about executives' thoughts on important issues.
The company also says lawmakers have dismissed concerns about the utility's financial health based on a report by the state Office of Regulatory Staff that SCANA has derided for misinterpreting key accounting rules.
"Legislators paid little heed to the fact that the ORS report was fundamentally flawed," Boomhower said. "We will continue communicating with employees and encouraging them to ask their representatives in the House and Senate not to gamble with the future of our state."
Some employees have followed through. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said he's received a few dozen calls and emails from SCANA's rank and file. Many, he said, seemed motivated by fear.
Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, represents a district that includes SCANA's headquarters outside Columbia. He says he sees the company's employees often — at the supermarket, the gym and church.
But he also co-chaired the Senate committee that investigated the nuclear project, and he says employees and customers don’t always know the full extent of what went wrong, or why.
Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, mentioned the advocacy push on the House floor Wednesday. Ott, who helped lead a committee that studied the nuclear project, said he was sympathetic to utility workers who feared for their jobs because of decisions they didn't make.
But, he added, he took issue with company leaders asking workers to pressure the Legislature not to cut off its nuclear collections.
Moments later, the House voted decisively to do just that — 119-1.
Andrew Brown contributed to this report.