Environmental Activists & Alabama’s Public Service Commission: The Unreported Side of the Story

JobKeeper Alliance, a job-focused nonprofit organization, is actively fighting the efforts of environmental groups who want to limit the Alabama Public Service Commission’s (PSC) decision-making ability. These groups want to control the resource planning process so they can advance an agenda that includes shutting down coal-fired power pants and forcing utilities to purchase expensive wind or solar energy. Multiple national research studies show this will cost Alabama thousands of jobs, raise the price of energy, and hamper our state’s ability to attract new industry.

Currently, Alabama is one of several states that does not allow interest groups to intervene in the PSC’s review and approval of a utility company’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). States such as Georgia that allow third-party intervention in the IRP process have faced fierce opposition from environmental organizations seeking to remove coal from the sate’s energy mix.[1] With Republicans in control of Alabama’s State House and every statewide elected office, environmental interest groups are unlikely to convince policy makers to give them access to the IRP process. As a result, these groups have turned to the utility ratemaking process as a backdoor approach to influencing Alabama’s energy policy.

Formal vs. informal review of utility rates

The controversy over utility rates started on November 16, 2012 when Ben Raines, an environmental reporter for Alabama Media Group’s Al.com, departed from his usual subject matter and began publishing a series of articles alleging that customers of Mobile Gas, Alagasco, and Alabama Power are paying more for utilities than they would in other states.[2] On December 27, 2012, Raines reported that PSC Commissioner Terry Dunn decided to call for formal rate hearings in response to Raines’ reporting on utility rates.[3]

During the first PSC meeting of 2013, Dunn introduced a motion calling for a formal hearing to review the rates of the state’s regulated utility companies. The motion was not supported by PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh or Commissioner Jeremy Oden, and ultimately failed for lack of a second. Both commissioners explained that the town hall style informal rate hearings previously approved by the Commission would be the best forum to address the issue since it allows them to hear directly from the public. Cavanaugh and Oden also expressed their concern that environmental groups were pushing for formal rates hearings so they could use the court-like proceeding to gain access to the IRP. As a result, both commissioners were subjected to unwarranted editorial mockery, with the most brutal blows directed at Cavanaugh.[4]

There is ample evidence that supports Cavanaugh and Oden’s claim that environmental groups are using the issue of utility rates and the demand for formal hearings to gain access to the IRP process. However, this side of the story is being inexcusably ignored by the media outlet publishing the majority of the stories about the PSC.

Environmental interest groups and the PSC

On December 5, 2012, the Alabama Environmental Council (ACE) held an energy forum where regional and local environmental groups came together to discuss their shared desire to reshape Alabama’s energy future.[5] In an Al.com story about the event, AEC executive director Michael Churchman said “There is not transparency currently in our energy planning process. That’s in contrast with nearby Georgia, where the Public Service Commission requires that utilities publicly share their so-called Integrated Resource Planning documents.”[6] This Al.com report is significant because it is the first and only story that acknowledges an environmental group’s interest in the PSC and the IRP process.

On March 21, 2013, representatives from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) came to Alabama to share their report calling for the retirement of 24 coal-fired generation units at 7 of the state’s power plants.[7]  In their blog post about the trip, SACE voiced their disapproval of the IRP process in Alabama and credited Georgia’s IRP process for the planned retirement of 10 coal-fired units identified in their report. The post also thanked the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and Black Warrior Riverkeeper for helping to facilitate their trip. According to PSC staff, SACE’s Amelia Shenstone and UCS’s Jeff Deyette met with some of the commissioners and their staff and discussed their desire to see coal-fired power plants in Alabama closed.

It is important to point out that Amelia Shenstone along with another representative from SACE spoke at AEC’s December 2012 energy forum.[8] It is also notable that a representative from AEC and SELC has been present at every PSC meeting this year.[9]

Fueling the controversy over utility rates

Ben Raines, Al.com’s environmental reporter, has not yet written about, or even mentioned the environmental groups that are seeking greater access to the PSC and the IRP process. However, Raines has written extensively about utility rates.[10] On March 1, 2013, the Arise Citizens’ Policy Project released a scathing report about the PSC titled “Public Utility Regulation without the Public.”[11] Raines published a lengthy article about the report but only discussed the report’s conclusions related to utility rates.[12] Raines’ story did not include any acknowledgement about the IRP process, even though that was a major part of the report.

A consumer group released the report. However, the lead author primarily represents environmental groups. In fact, 75% of David Schlissel’s clients are environmental interest groups, according to his company’s website.[13] Schlissel has testified in numerous regulatory proceedings on behalf of powerful environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and the Southern Environmental Law Center.[14]

In the report, Schlissel is critical of the Alabama PSC’s IRP approval process, which does not allow third parties such as environmental groups to intervene in the process. The report cites an internal document provided by a Birmingham environmental group called GASP, which was included to show that the organization did not have access to the IRP.[15] While speaking at UAB on February 21, 2013, GASP Executive Director Stacie Propst confirmed that she sees the utility rate issue as a way to help her group accomplish their goal. Propst said “In the midst of this firestorm about utility rates, you may be asking yourself, what in the world does this have to do with pollution. Right? It’s directly related. The point here is, obviously, that transparency would help us a great deal in understanding how power plants are polluting.”[16]

Conclusion

There is no precedent, as far as JobKeeper can find, that environmental groups have ever counted consumer utility bills as a chief goal. Rather, long experience shows that their goals do include overhauling Alabama’s energy portfolio in favor of more expensive, renewable sources. It is also clear from their own words that environmental groups in Alabama covet a public Integrated Resource Plan in Alabama, which would provide them an access tantamount to legal discovery.

It is the opinion of JobKeeper that environmental groups are using the utility rate discussion as a catalyst to drive the agenda they desire, which does not include protecting Alabama consumers and jobs. We believe strongly that if these environmental groups are successful, they will use the IRP process to fight for the closing of coal-fired power plants, push a renewable power mandate, and effect other initiatives from states like California. Changes to our state’s energy mix such as this increase costs and negatively impact Alabama businesses, workers, and consumers.

An issue this important should be reported so that Alabama citizens can make their voice heard.



[9] AEC: Joyce Lanning or Michael Churchman SELC lawyers: Christina Andreen or Keith Johnston

[14] Sierra Club- Florida PSC Docket No. 070098-EI, Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission Cause No. 43114, Ohio Power Sitting Board Case No. 06-1358-EL-BGN, Mississippi PSC Docket No. 2009-UA-014, Docket No. 2010-UA-0279, North Carolina UC Docket No. E-100 Sub 124, Wisconsin PSC Docket No. 05-CE-137, Docket No. 05-CE-138; SACE- Georgia PSC Docket No. 22449-U, Docket No. 27800-U, North Carolina UC Docket No. E-100 Sub 124; SELC- North Carolina UC Docket No. E-100 Sub 124

[16] GASP Executive Director Stacie Propst speaking at UAB on February 21, 2013

(Audio file: http://jobkeeperalliance.org/?attachment_id=633)

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