COLUMBIA — South Carolina's utility regulators on Wednesday refused to throw out two cases against SCANA Corp., as the utility owner and state officials continue to argue over who should pay for two abandoned nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer station.
The unanimous vote by the seven-member Public Service Commission leaves open the possibility that the panel could cut off the payments SCANA — the parent of South Carolina Electric & Gas — collects for the failed project. SCE&G customers pay almost a fifth of their bills, or $37 million a month, for the unfinished reactors north of Columbia.
By combining that action with another proposal, the utility commission will also consider whether SCANA should refund customers for the roughly $1.8 billion it has collected to finance its share of the nuclear project since 2009.
SCANA's attorneys argued last week that either one of those actions would bankrupt the company, though financial analysts say that's not a sure bet. In a bleak prediction, SCANA lawyers said that bankruptcy would make it harder for the utility to restore power after a hurricane or another natural disaster.
Commissioner Elliott Elam ordered the Office of Regulatory Staff — the state's utility watchdog agency — to determine whether SCANA's bankruptcy warnings were accurate or whether the utility could absorb the lost revenue.
SCANA's stock, which has dropped by about a third since the project was canceled in late July, fell more than 1 percent Wednesday to close at $41.32. Its shares are trading near a six-year low.
Wednesday's ruling Wednesday was the first major decision the commission has issued since the $9 billion project was canceled. It also marked the first time that the panel has ruled against Cayce-based SCANA since the project began.
"We realize this was a very difficult decision to make, and we look forward to preparing for the evidentiary hearing," Nanette Edwards, the Office of Regulatory Staff's deputy director, said in a statement.
For nearly a decade, the utility commissioners gave SCANA nearly everything it asked for, even as the nuclear budget ballooned and the company failed to provide a legitimate construction schedule for the Westinghouse-designed reactors.
As the utility case proceeds, lawyers for the Office of Regulatory Staff, Friends of Earth and other groups opposing SCANA will attempt to show the company purposefully withheld information from the commission.
Letters, e-mails, documents and a critical 2016 audit of the construction project at V.C. Summer have all been revealed in recent months as lawmakers investigated the nuclear cancellation.
Bob Guild, an attorney representing Friends of Earth, said he plans to bring that evidence before the utility commission.
Guild, who has challenged the nuclear project at V.C. Summer since 2008, said the case will determine what SCANA knew and when.