COLUMBIA — SCANA and Dominion Energy want it both ways, lawmakers believe, as the companies seek to finalize their merger and attempt to charge customers $3.3 billion for two useless power plants over the next 20 years.
The two utilities are asking state senators not to be hasty when deciding how to respond to the $9 billion cancellation of two nuclear reactors at Fairfield County's V.C. Summer station.
At the same time, the companies' attorneys are pushing the state's utility regulators on the Public Service Commission to speed up their review of the abandoned nuclear project and Dominion's proposed $14.6 billion takeover of SCANA, which offers customers an average refund of $1,000.
"We believe policymakers should act in both a considered and timely manner," Dominion spokesman Chet Wade said. "Failing to do either would be harmful to the customers of (SCANA) and to the state of South Carolina."
The utilities' strategy is twofold: They want the state's utility regulators to approve the sale proposal by July. Meanwhile, they hope to stall legislation in the Senate that would temporarily cut off the $37 million per month that SCANA collects for the unfinished reactors.
The House already voted 119-1 to do just that.
SCANA believes the Public Service Commission has to either approve or deny the merger by July. The companies, Wade said, were simply asking for due process by having the utility commissioners rule on their merger proposal in a timely manner. The companies said that request doesn't conflict with their calls to have lawmakers thoroughly consider the legislation that could kill their deal.
Sen. Mike Fanning, a Democrat who represents the district where the abandoned nuclear project is located, called the companies' tactics "purposeful confusion."
"You cannot ask for a slow deliberative process while asking for an immediate hearing and an immediate result," Fanning said. "It is the height of hypocrisy to be telling us to slow down on the one hand and at the same time rushing a decision through (state utility regulators). They are talking out both sides of their mouth."
The utilities' requests came to a head in the Senate on Thursday as lawmakers debated a plan that gives the Public Service Commission until February 2019 to review SCANA's handling of the nuclear project and its repeated claims of imminent bankruptcy. The Senate could vote on that measure next week.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said the plan gives the Office of Regulatory Staff — the state's utility watchdog — more time to conduct a full audit of SCANA's finances. It also gives the Senate, where legislation can be tied up for months, more time to consider their options.
In a The Post and Courier guest column Thursday, Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell seemed to agree with that plan. He wrote, "The consequences are too great to act without thinking through every possible outcome."
But in the Statehouse, Massey said Dominion's lobbyists are pushing lawmakers to oppose the legislation that extends the companies' case in front of regulators beyond July. Dominion told its investors that it wants to close its takeover of SCANA no later than September.
"They keep telling people slow down, take your time and get all the information before you make a decision," Massey said. "But they don't want to give us time to do that. It's a very disingenuous argument."
Farrell is expected to take part in a Senate hearing on Wednesday, and Massey said his return to Columbia is likely to delay any vote on his measure until at least Wednesday afternoon.
On Wednesday, SCANA's lawyers told the state utility regulators that if they don't approve the sale this summer the Cayce-based company won't be able to borrow money, harming its 700,000 customers and the communities it serves.
Those are many of the same outcomes that SCANA promised if lawmakers moved too quickly to strip away the $445 million they collect for the reactors every year. Customers pay 18 percent of their bills for the partially built reactors.
The V.C. Summer project, started in 2009, drew national attention because it promised to usher in a new era of nuclear power in the United States. Instead, the project became a crater of debt that left electric customers on the hook for a squandered investment larger than the state's $8 billion annual budget.
The dire warnings from the utilities made some senators uneasy Thursday.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, fretted Thursday over how far SCANA's stock price plunged over the past year. Company shares are down by half. He asked lawmakers to not focus on punishing SCANA and its executives for their handling of the V.C. Summer, which cost 6,000 jobs when it was abandoned. Grooms worried any attempt by lawmakers to fix the problem would only make the situation worse, an argument Farrell raised in his guest column.
"I don't want to have any part in causing additional harm to the ratepayers," Grooms said. "You might want to. You might want to risk the future of this state and its energy policy, but I'm don't."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to corrected Sen. Larry Grooms' place of residence to Bonneau.