COLUMBIA — South Carolina's utility regulators had a change of heart Monday, altering an earlier order and officially condemning SCANA Corp. for willfully withholding information about the V.C. Summer nuclear project as it failed.
The state Public Service Commission voted to explicitly call out the Cayce-based utility and its former executives after the Office of Regulatory Staff — the state's utility watchdog, and S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, asked the regulators to do so earlier this month.
All seven utility commissioners, who are elected by the state Legislature, toed the line laid down by Lucas, one of the most powerful lawmakers in the Statehouse.
The new order will not change the monthly bills for the roughly 720,000 customers of South Carolina Electric & Gas, a subsidiary of SCANA. Those utility ratepayers will still be required to pay another $2.3 billion for the unfinished nuclear reactors over the next two decades.
But the commission's new, clear-cut finding of dishonesty could have broader implications for SCANA, which was sold to Virginia power giant Dominion Energy.
The company still faces a federal class-action lawsuit filed by its investors, who saw the company's stock price plummet after the utility cancelled the nuclear project in July 2017. The company's former and current executives are still under a federal criminal investigation.
Last month, many of the utility regulators intentionally chose not to denounce SCANA for withholding critical cost estimates and construction audits over the course of the nuclear project. They voted down a motion by new commissioner Tom Ervin to specifically define how the utility misled the commission.
All of those commissioners, including Randy Randall, Elliott Elam, Butch Howard, O'Neal Hamilton and Swain Whitfield, voted differently Monday. One by one those commissioners voiced their approval for changing their earlier order.
Reading largely from a script, Elam agreed with the House speaker and the Office of Regulatory Staff that a finding of imprudence was needed to restore "the public trust."
"The record is clear that there was not information provided to this commission," said Justin Williams, another newly appointed commissioner.
Nanette Edwards, executive director of the Office of Regulatory Staff, thanked the commission for changing course. Edwards said the decision was needed to "send a message to all utilities regulated by the PSC that statutory compliance, transparency and accountability are requirements that cannot be violated without penalty."
But the changes made by the utility regulators did not alleviate all of the concerns about their order, which cemented Dominion's takeover of SCANA.
The commission also rejected requests by the Office of Regulatory Staff and several environmental groups that asked for additional refunds to SCE&G customers, who already paid more than $2 billion for the useless nuclear reactors north of Columbia.
The decision to allow Dominion to collect another $2.3 billion for the nuclear reactors, Elam said, brings "finality and stability" to SCE&G customers and the state.
The rejection of additional refunds raises the possibility that the commission's order could be challenged in the S.C. Supreme Court. That is not something Lucas is supporting.
Groups like Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and the Office of Regulatory Staff have yet to announce whether they will appeal the decision to the state's highest court.
For now, ratepayers will have to settle for the public reprimand.