South Carolina senators are on the precipice of forcing South Carolina Electric & Gas to stop charging for its failed nuclear project — still.
More than two weeks after senators took a key step toward temporarily cutting SCE&G’s electric rates, they spent hours Tuesday debating the proposal anew.
The threat of a filibuster continued to linger over the debate, and Tuesday saw SCE&G and its prospective buyer, Dominion Energy, renew their advocacy against a rate reduction after the utility’s failed effort to expand the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station.
The debate, which is expected to resume Wednesday, shed little new light on the fault lines running through the Legislature over the biggest debacle it has faced in years. But it made it clear that ratepayers’ bills won’t go down without a fight.
Driving the fissures is a threat by Dominion that it will walk away from its plans to buy SCE&G and its parent company, SCANA Corp., if the Legislature votes for a rate cut — even if it’s temporary. Dominion has proposed to reduce rates partially and refund most of the money SCE&G collected for its nuclear project, but it has clashed with lawmakers who want drastic cuts.
“Would you rather have the cash or the promise of a politician?” said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, who advocated against a rate reduction bill for about an hour. Later, he added: “We’re offering hot wind from politicians, and we seem to be standing in the way of cold cash from a known company.”
Hours before the debate began, Dominion and SCANA laid out one last argument for their deal, one targeted at a Legislature that prides itself on its economic-development credentials: It could give South Carolina’s economy a boost.
Dominion also revived a marketing campaign last week to burnish its image.
The premise of their latest argument is simple enough. If they cut electric rates and write refund checks for about a quarter of the state’s residents, they say, the extra money will eventually churn through the economy.
That case was based on an analysis by University of South Carolina economist Joey Von Nessen, who estimated Dominion’s plan would give the economy an $18.7 billion boost over the next six decades.
If the utility-commissioned estimates are correct, the state’s economy would grow by a hair: The impact works out to a few hundred million dollars a year in a state that that produces about $220 billion annually.
The proposed refund would front-load the economic boost, but the bulk of the savings would be spread out bit by bit. That’s because of Dominion’s plan to reduce SCANA’s electric rates and take the unfinished nuclear reactors off the utility’s books more quickly. On its own, SCANA plans to collect on the project for at least a half-century.
Under Dominion’s plan, SCE&G would collect $3.8 billion over the next two decades. That’s billions of dollars less than the status quo — the utility collects $37 million a month for the reactors, about a fifth of its electric rates — but lawmakers have made it clear that they don’t think it goes far enough.
That’s why the House has approved a measure to force SCANA to temporarily stop charging for the nuclear project, and it’s why the Senate took the first step last month toward cutting rates by 13 percent.
“They inserted the actions of this General Assembly into their contract. That is the mistake that SCANA and Dominion made,” said Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Great Falls, who has advocated for a full rate reduction. “The consumers now have a seat at the table that they otherwise would not have.”
In the Statehouse lobby Tuesday, a pair of environmental groups echoed lawmakers’ frustration. Bob Guild, a Columbia attorney who represents the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, said Dominion’s offer was a "take it or leave it" deal that leaves ratepayers in a bind either way.
Guild likened electricity users to innocent people who were wrongly convicted of a crime — and only given the choice of a life sentence or death.
"They will manipulate our Legislature the same way they manipulate the Legislature in Virginia," Guild said.
Andrew Brown of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.