Ohio House of Representatives passes Clean Air Act, highlights divisions in caucuses

Ohio Statehouse Newsroom

COLUMBUS (WCMH) – The Ohio Clean Air Act is an important piece of legislation for Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder. 

He wanted to see the bill passed and was able to finally get enough votes to see that happen, but not before the bill that is supposedly going “to improve the air quality of the State,” went through some drastic changes. 

Last week the access to the money the bill would generate for wind and solar projects was stripped away.

Several reasons were given, but ultimately it came down to doing what was necessary to secure the votes to get the bill passed.

At the same time, a failed piece of legislation from last General Assembly was tacked to the bill that codified an Ohio Supreme Court Ruling that allows for a fee on our electric bills to be charged that subsidizes two coal-fired power plants, one of which is in Indiana.

The sponsors of that bill last General Assembly, Rep. Rick Carfagna and Rep. Ryan Smith, said adding it to House Bill 6, the Ohio Clean Air Act, didn’t change their vote; they’re still going to vote ‘no’. 

Smith says the bill is flawed in many ways, which he pointed out in a floor speech during debate of the bill Wednesday.

He questioned if the bailout of two nuclear power plants owned and operated by FirstEnergy Solutions was even necessary since there are questions over the profitability of the plants.

Smith also questioned if lawmakers thought that by saving these jobs, the legislature would do the same for a business in their area someday. He intimated that it would not and gave several examples of how coal plants in Appalachia were not bailed out in the past. 

After two and a half hours of debate, the final vote came down 53-43; but it was certainly not along party lines as the total would suggest. 

The final vote saw 10 Democrats joining 43 Republicans to vote in favor of the bill. 

At total of 17 Republicans and 26 Democrats voted against the bill; of those Republicans, almost all of them did not support Householder for Speaker of the House. 

One Republican said they were contacted directly by Gov. Mike DeWine asking for their support. It was denied. 

Of the Democrats that voted for the bill, at least one of them was directly contacted by several interested parties and constituents. 

What they didn’t know at the time of the vote was the savings that are supposed to be happening by eliminating the $4.89 energy efficiency standards could end up going right back onto our bills.  

One of the provisions of the bill grandfathers all current long-term deals, like projects AEP is involved with. 

This is from the bill analysis written by the Legislative Service Commission: 

Beginning January 1, 2020, the bill requires all prudently incurred costs by an electric distribution utility associated with contractual obligations that existed prior to 2020 to be recoverable from the utility’s retail customers as a distribution expense if the money in the Ohio Clean Air Program Fund is insufficient to offset these costs. The bill specifies that such costs are ongoing and must include costs incurred to discontinue existing programs that were implemented by the utility to meet the renewable energy requirements. 

In other words, when the money runs out, they can add to your electric bills an “ongoing cost”. How much that cost will be is unknown, as is if that cost will have to go through the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio as part of rate setting. 

So, all those “savings” the bill reports to have could disappear completely.

In the meantime, all the benefits of the energy efficiency fee would be wiped out as well. Opponents of the bill say the $4.89 fee is actually making electric bills lower than they would be without the fee and the efficiency it forces. 

Supporters of the bill don’t like the idea of that $4.89 fee increasing in the next few years and see this as an opportunity to wipe it out. 

Some of those same lawmakers are vehemently against the wind industry, which not only had its ability to access money generated by the Clean Air Act eliminated last week, things were taken a step further. 

If the bill were signed into law as it is now, it would allow for communities to call for a referendum on whether it wants a wind project or not – and that the vote could be held after the company spends millions of dollars in advanced work preparing for the project, including sending people out to get land owners to sign up for programs and other necessary, and costly, steps before a project can be fully green lit. 

This could create a situation in which the risk versus reward ratio for wind projects is so bad they would simply not be explored in Ohio. 

This may be what Rep. Bill Seitz ultimately wants. He argued on the House floor about the prospect that a wind turbine blade could fail and send pieces of metal up to 1,500 feet away; and asked his colleagues how they would feel if their daughter was outside playing when those metal shards fell from the sky and hit her in the head. 

Setting aside the astronomically small statistical probability of that actually happening, the hyperbole of it is not lost. Just like cellphone towers before them, some people don’t want to look at wind turbines, and until they can be rendered invisible to the naked eye, that is likely to be the case, especially for Seitz, who says he wouldn’t stand it if they wanted to put a turbine near his home in an urban setting (which has a similarly small statistical probability).  

The bill now moves to the Ohio Senate and eyes will turn to that legislative body to see what, if anything, they do with it. 

Smith was right, threats have been made about closing the two nuclear power plants before, and yet they remain open. 

Perhaps the Senate will take the bill up before summer break, perhaps not; the lawmakers in that chamber are a little busy at the moment with other fish to fry as the State Operating Budget still hasn’t been finalized, and the clock is ticking.

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