An epic battle is unfolding at the S.C. State House and on the airwaves as deep-pocketed power companies fight for a foothold in South Carolina’s volatile energy market.
Three dozen lobbyists have been hired by major utilities to be their eyes, ears and advocates at the State House as lawmakers decide what to do about a failed nuclear project that already has cost S.C. power customers more than $2 billion.
Included in that number are at least eight lobbyists for a Florida-based utility, NextEra Energy, thought to have its eyes on acquiring the Cayce-based SCANA utility and, possibly, the state-owned Santee Cooper utility as well.
In addition, at least eight more lobbyists are representing the solar industry, which sees the nuclear fiasco as an opportunity to expand its footprint in the Palmetto State. The state-owned Santee Cooper utility also has two additional lobbyists. Another group, whose lobbyist is a former congressman, is pushing for the state to sell Santee Cooper. That group, State House sources, say is aligned with NextEra.
The groups also are appealing to the public through commercials, web and social media campaigns, and polls about the biggest event on the horizon: Virginia-based Dominion’s proposed $14.6 billion buyout of SCANA, taking heat for the nuclear project’s failure.
Lawmakers are bracing themselves for a lobbying onslaught.
“There’s no question they’re coming,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said of the lobbying effort at the State House. “It’s going to be pretty intense. It’s probably going to be the most intensely lobbied issue that I’ve seen.
“And most of it’s going to be disingenuous. Everybody’s putting their own spin on it.”
State House insiders say big bucks are flowing to the energy lobby, inspiring jokes from lawmakers and lobbyists about the nuclear debacle being the “Lobbyist Full Employment Act.”
Two power companies watching the nuclear issue are not new to the State House lobby.
SCANA, with customers in the Midlands and Lowcountry, has eight registered legislative lobbyists. And Charlotte-based Duke Energy, with customers in the Upstate and Piedmont, has registered nine lobbyists.
Both have long been among the biggest spenders on persuasion at the State House.
However, two additional companies are staking out new territory, lobbying records show.
Having entered the state in 2014 with its purchase of SCANA’s natural gas pipeline system, Dominion, thus far this month, has doubled its S.C. lobbying staff to 10. The Richmond-based utility is trying to build support for its purchase of SCANA, which announced last July it was abandoning construction on two over-budget nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.
Among Dominion’s new lobbying hires is former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat and senior adviser for McGuireWoods Consulting. That firm and Hodges have a history with Dominion. Hodges worked as a consultant for the utility when it bought SCANA’s S.C. natural gas pipeline system in 2014. Also, Dominion chief executive Tom Farrell is a former lawyer for McGuireWoods.
New to the State House lobby is Florida-based NextEra Energy, which has hired eight lobbyists, including veterans Harry Cato and Tommy Moore. Moore and Cato were S.C. lawmakers in 2007 when the Legislature passed a law that enabled SCANA to gamble on the nuclear expansion project with customers’ money.
NextEra’s first S.C. lobbyist, Darrell Scott, registered with the state in early November, less than a month after news broke that the Florida-based power company was interested in buying Santee Cooper, SCANA’s junior partner in the failed nuclear project.
NextEra — a Florida-based utility with no S.C. holdings and, until now, no presence in the S.C. State House — has hired eight lobbyists for the new legislative session.
The utility, which has its eyes on buying SCANA and state-owned Santee Cooper, also is a founding member of the Palmetto Energy Coalition, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the arrangement.
When it launched last fall, that group, led by former U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-Westminster, described itself vaguely. The group’s website does not identify its members publicly.
However, State House sources says NextEra is behind the Energy Coalition.
Former U.S. Rep. Barrett did not return calls Friday requesting comment on his coalition and its membership. And Adam Temple, a public relations consultant working with Energy Coalition, also did not respond to emails asking whether the Energy Coalition is being bankrolled by NextEra.
NextEra’s chief spokesman Rob Gould replied in an email, “Sorry, but we won’t be offering any comment related to your questions.”
However, Barrett and the Energy Coalition are pushing lawmakers to sell Santee Cooper.
The group also criticized Dominion’s proposed buyout of SCANA within hours of its announcement, saying — correctly — that Dominion was offering less in refunds to customers than the money those customers have been charged.
“While today’s announcement takes some steps in the right direction, it leaves much to be desired for thousands of South Carolina families struggling to pay rates for electricity they didn’t and won’t receive,” the coalition wrote.
The Energy Coalition also has done polling on the nuclear fiasco. For instance, the group has touted its early November online poll that found 76 percent of S.C. residents think it’s a good idea to sell Santee Cooper.
The veiled relationship between NextEra and PEC is not the first time the utility has been accused of lurking in the shadows to achieve its goals.
In 2016 in Florida, for example, NextEra subsidiary Florida Power and Light backed a $26 million ballot measure designed, according to critics, to confuse voters and scuttle another ballot measure, put forth by the solar industry, to expand rooftop solar power.
Selling the deal
SCANA and Dominion are engaged in a massive marketing campaign to win support from the public.
Consultants and lobbyists promoting the deal are using social media to share positive posts and feedback about Dominion or its offer.
Dominion spokesman Chet Wade called it an education campaign to help S.C. residents, lawmakers and others understand what the deal means for customers.
Dominion is pitching a $1,000 refund to SCE&G customers if the deal goes down. The deal requires approval from a handful of state and federal regulators, including the S.C. commission that regulates utilities.
Wade also said Dominion has polled S.C. residents to see how much they know about the company’s offer.
Wayne Cockfield, a 68-year-old retiree from Florence, said he received a call Wednesday, asking leading questions in favor of the $14.6 billion merger.
It is unclear who paid for that poll. However, Cockfield said the caller asked whether he supports or opposes Dominion's offer to buy SCANA.
Cockfield thinks the offer is a sham and says he told the caller as much.
Then, the caller asked whether Dominion's offer to refund SCE&G customers about $1,000 each for the failed nuclear project or its plans to cut SCE&G’s electric bills for consumers by $7 a month would change his mind, Cockfield said.
"I've done some politics. I know what push polls are," said Cockfield, who has worked for pro-life causes. "To me, it wasn't a real poll. It was a commercial. I don't think they give a hoot about my opinion."
South Carolina’s energy lobby
Nearly 50 lobbyists representing energy clients have registered to lobby at the S.C. State House this year. They are:
Dominion – 10 lobbyists
Duke Energy – Nine lobbyists
Angelia Smith Owens
NextEra – Eight lobbyists
SCANA – Eight lobbyists
Palmetto Energy Coalition
Vivant Solar – Two lobbyists
Cypress Creek Renewables
Alliance for Solar Choice