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Dark money, so-called “independent” Nuclear Matters, Georgia’s Public Service Commission and regulatory capture

More than $1m of industry funding is being funnelled into a runoff election to decide who pays for a power company’s botched project – shareholders or the people?

This is a convoluted tale of secret corporate money in politics, the capture of regulators by those they are meant to regulate, incompetence, and greed.

We learned this week that more than $1m in dark money – secretly sourced political spending – is pouring into Tuesday’s runoff election for Georgia’s Public Service Commission (PSC).

The PSC is powerful; by setting rates it determines how much Georgians pay for electricity each month, and among its mandates is to safeguard the public interest by regulating Georgia’s energy industry.

But PSC elections have tended to fly under the radar, and they’ve long been dominated by candidates vetted and approved by Georgia Power – Georgia’s monopoly energy company – and its owner, the Southern Company.

So what’s with all the dark money this time around?

There are four key players in this drama: the Southern Company, which owns Georgia Power; a political committee called “Georgians for a Better Future”; a lobbying group called Nuclear Matters; and a powerful trade group called the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Spending these unprecedented sums in support of the incumbent Republican commissioner, Chuck Eaton, is “Georgians for a Brighter Future”, established just weeks ago for the specific purpose of intervention in our PSC runoff, in which Eaton faces a vigorous challenge from the Democratic rising star Lindy Miller.

Just three weeks into its existence, “Georgians for a Brighter Future” has been lavishly and swiftly funded for this mission by Nuclear Matters, the Washington-based “non-profit” that lobbies for the nuclear energy industry.

Thanks to America’s corrupted campaign finance laws, Nuclear Matters’ funders are secret. But the likely sponsors are not hard to establish. Nuclear Matters itself is an arm of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nationwide nuclear industry’s trade association (we used to call them cartels), funded in part by the Southern Company.

Georgia Power’s CEO, Paul Bowers, is on Nuclear Matters’ board of directors. Former Georgia PSC chairman and diligent industry servant Stan Wise sits on its “advocacy council”. So does University of Georgia professor David Gattie, who provides consistent academic cover for Georgia Power’s business agenda and has not to my knowledge disclosed whether he receives industry funding.

Wise, according to reporting in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “resigned [from the PSC] earlier this year but hung on to his post long enough to join Eaton and three other members in green-lighting Georgia Power’s plan to continue construction on two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, a project now running five years behind schedule with billions of dollars in cost overruns.”

Here the purpose of this dark money assault on Georgia voters becomes clearer.

Plant Vogtle is Georgia Power’s – and therefore the Southern Company’s – nuclear power station in eastern Georgia. In 2013 the Southern Company began construction of two new reactors at Vogtle, backed by $8.3bn in federal loan guarantees.

Then the Southern Company proceeded to botch the project. Now years behind schedule and billions over budget, we face a classic political dilemma: who will pay? Georgia Power, the Southern Company, and their shareholders? Or Georgia Power’s customers – the people?

Not surprisingly, the Southern Company is determined that Georgia’s energy consumers – “ratepayers” – should pay for billions in cost overruns. Under our country’s perverse rules of corporate governance, this is, I suppose, rational. The alternative is that their shareholders and executives take a haircut.

Enter Democrat Lindy Miller, the first-time candidate, who fought her way against the odds into this runoff. Miller is no opponent of nuclear energy and she supports continued construction of Plant Vogtle to deliver cheap energy to Georgia without massive greenhouse gas emissions. She just doesn’t think Georgia ratepayers should pay for the Southern Company’s gross failure to meet a budget or a schedule.

It seems that’s just not acceptable to the Southern Company. As with the investment bankers and rating agencies who were bailed out despite their responsibility for the 2008 financial crisis, the Southern Company wants the public to bear the cost of its malpractice.

So we see this massive, 11th-hour political intervention in support of Eaton, the Southern Company’s chosen candidate. Why? Because he will reliably vote to saddle Georgia’s teachers, firefighters, veterans, retirees and working families with higher energy bills to bail out his powerful benefactors.

This story presents a microcosm of much that is wrong with American politics. The Southern Company’s dominance of Georgia’s PSC is what policy nerds call “regulatory capture”. With a relatively modest investment of millions, this multibillion-dollar industry is attempting to buy a seat on the public body that regulates it, even though Georgia law nominally forbids regulated entities from funding candidates for regulatory offices.

This money, like so much political spending, is laundered through a series of lobby groups and “non-profits” to obscure its origins and the agenda behind it. Dark money political spending, which is meant to mislead the public and serves only the interests of concentrated corporate power, should be banned by Congress and state legislatures.

It’s worth recalling that the Southern Company in its present form was born of trust-busting action ordered by the United States Congress. In 1947, its parent company, Commonwealth & Southern Energy, was dissolved by the Securities and Exchange Commission under the anti-trust authority of the Public Utility Holding Company Act. So the Southern Company as we know it now was born, ironically, of anti-trust action.

Fast-forward 71 years. Unrestrained corporate consolidation is once again crushing consumers and competitors in nearly every major sector of the US economy, while behemoth firms and trade groups wield virtually limitless political power. The Southern Company, the monopoly power giant, would force citizens to subsidize its own inefficiency, and they’re using their financial and political muscle to buy this seat on the PSC and evade financial responsibility.

There are good arguments for scale in energy production. But perhaps it’s time to revisit the anti-trust victories of the early 20th century.

And ban dark money now.

December 4, 2018 - Posted by | secrets,lies and civil liberties, USA

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