Utilities are buying politicians to do their bidding. It’s costing taxpayers billions.

The biggest political scandal in Ohio’s history exposes a nest of corrupt investments in fossil fuels.

Credit: Flickr

You’ve likely heard it before: fossil fuel companies fund politicians who will do their climate-wrecking bidding. Think of the numerous fossil fuel subsidies, rollbacks of pesky climate and health regulations, and billions of dollars in bailouts the industry recently received at taxpayers’ expense during the pandemic.

This isn’t just a problem at the national level, though. An explosive development in Ohio — last week’s arrest of a prominent state politician — has put the issue in a whole new light. 

Last year, Ohio lawmakers passed one of the most backward energy policies in the country, designed to royally screw the state’s clean energy transition. HB6 scraped out the state’s decade-old renewable energy laws, including an energy efficiency policy that had saved ratepayers over $5 billion, and allowed the state’s monopoly electric utility, FirstEnergy, to use money set aside for the state’s nuclear sector to bring three big, failing coal plants back from death’s door. 

And then, last Tuesday, came the bombshell: HB6’s architect, Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder, was arrested by the FBI and charged along with four alleged co-conspirators in a $61 million bribery scheme related to the bill’s passage. 

According to the 82-page affidavit, Householder and FirstEnergy lobbyists used a fake social welfare organization to funnel funds into a false advertising and lobbying campaign to support the bill. Sound familiar?

In return, the FBI says Householder received personal favors and hundreds of thousands of dollars from FirstEnergy, which he put to a variety of purposes including settling a lawsuit against him, funding his Florida vacation home, and his campaign expenses. 

And it didn’t end there: a major funder of climate denial since the 1990s, the utility went on to bankroll a campaign to scare voters away from a petition for a ballot initiative that would’ve allowed the public to overturn the law. If the FBI charges are true, FirstEnergy undermined local democracy, robbed Ohio of precious years to transition away from fossil fuels, and lined the pockets of corrupt executives and their political minions — all while sticking ratepayers with the bill.

“These corrupt interests blocked Ohioans from having a say in whether their hard-earned money should be shipped to Wall Street, in whether the 114,000+ Ohioans working in the clean energy sector should be put at risk for layoffs, and whether state policy should favor sources of energy that pollute our air and water,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, President of the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund. “The disastrous legislation stuck Ohioans with dirtier air, higher utility bills, and a bleaker climate future. Ohioans deserve better.”

Since Householder’s arrest, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has called for the repeal of HB6, and House members voted 90-0 to remove Householder as speaker. (He still remains in office and on the ballot, however.) 

Some Ohio lawmakers, however, like Representative Casey Weinstein, have refused to take campaign donations from FirstEnergy because “that money corrupts.”

“It got us a corporate bailout for a chronically needy company that we’ve handed billions of dollars of support from Ohio ratepayers over the last decade, and an axe to two really dramatically growing industries, energy efficiency and renewables, and the tens of thousands of jobs they provide,” he said. “It’s a really sad time, because it erodes the trust Ohioans are going to have in their elected leaders. But change is coming.”

FirstEnergy’s scandal, though a particularly spectacular display of corruption, is apparently not the first. From California and Arizona to Illinois, energy utilities have used ratepayer dollars to unravel climate and clean energy standards and then cover their tracks.

These schemes threaten democracy, put peoples lives and public health at risk, and hit communities in the pocketbook. Weinstein’s district is in Cleveland-Akron-Canton, a region with one of the top ten worst air qualities in the nation. In Ohio, nearly 400,000 people live in areas at elevated risk of inland flooding, and summer droughts, spiking temperatures, and heavier rains are becoming a real issue for its local economies. Laws like HB6 strangle states’ timelines and budgets to deal with a growing climate crisis.

“No matter how you slice it, this law cost Ohioans billions of dollars,” wrote Leah Stokes, whose new book, Short Circuiting Policy, details the legislative battles over HB6 and other state-level energy laws. “And since these are monopoly utilities we’re talking about, if folks want to stop funding FirstEnergy’s corrupt activities by simply paying the monthly electricity bills, they can’t. There is no choice.” 

This lack of options is a problem across many American cities and states forced into funding their own demise. Last month, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison took three of the biggest funders of climate denial to court for the similar charge of buying off elected officials, lying to consumers, and funding front groups to stop climate policy in its tracks. Minnesotans, like Ohioans, and like communities across the country, are paying the price for the industry’s corruption. Holding them accountable is the only way forward.

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