Lawmakers are right not to fall for Exelon’s heavy-handed tactics | Opinion

Three Mile Island. (Z22/Wikimedia Commons)

It wasn’t too hard to read between the lines to find the clear message that Chicago-based Exelon Energy sent to state lawmakers on Wednesday: That’s a nice nuclear plant you got there. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.

“Although we see strong support in Harrisburg and throughout Pennsylvania to reduce carbon emissions and maintain the environmental and economic benefits provided by nuclear energy, we don’t see a path forward for policy changes before the June 1 fuel purchasing deadline for [Three Mile Island],” Exelon representative Kathleen Barron said in a statement obtained by the Press & Journal in Middletown.

In other words, no $500 million bailout, funded on the backs of tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians, then we’re taking our Day-Glo ball and going home.

The announcement was followed by the expected lamentations from lawmakers who represent Three Mile Island and the surrounding area in the General Assembly. Rep. Thomas Mehaffie, R-Dauphin, the author of the House’s version of the bailout bill, called it “the worst news [he’d] received” since taking office in 2017.

State Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, that he’s going to continue working on the issue, but “it is clear at this point in time that there is not sufficient support to advance a proposal in time to preserve TMI.”

That’s because the bills are profoundly bad ideas that bear the rare distinction of uniting both Democrats and Republicans in their disdain. They deserve to fail. And no amount of corporate extortion by an industry behemoth that proudly boasted to shareholders that it had “another record-breaking year” in 2018, and got off to a fine start in the first quarter of 2019 as well, should force the hand of policymakers.

So, the issue, it appears, is not that Exelon won’t be making money if TMI shuffles off this mortal coil. It simply won’t be making as much money as it would have if TMI had continued to operate.

Look, there’s no getting around the fact that the loss of 675 well-paying jobs is bad news for Three Mile Island’s immediate neighborhood.

But in a booming economy, with Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate at a historically low 3.9 percent in March, there’s every reason to expect that the displaced workers (many of whom are unionized) will be able to find new jobs elsewhere. Gov. Tom Wolf and lawmakers have made workforce development and retraining a central peg of the policy agenda for 2019.

The retraining and placement for those workers can easily be made a legislative priority that doesn’t cost anywhere near $500 million. And Pennsylvania’s community colleges, which deserve a funding increase, by the way, have a significant role to play there.

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And as PennLive reported Thursday, because Pennsylvania is a net energy exporter, there’s also no reason to expect that electricity bills will go up, or that energy reliability will decrease in any measurable way if Three Mile Island shuts down.

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission Chairwoman Gladys Brown Dutrieuille told House lawmakers Monday that if the nuclear capacity that’s lost from a TMI shutdown is “replaced by natural gas-fueled generation, which is the likely outcome, wholesale energy prices would decrease in a range of 9 percent to 24 percent each year over the next three years,” PennLive reported.

But if the bailout were to pass, it’s clear that utility bills would go up for Pennsylvania consumers. As the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison reported last month, residential power bills would increase by $1.53 to $3 a month.

Assuming the high end, that’s $36 a year, which isn’t awful.

That is, until you take into account the bailout’s impact on small business owners — the same small business owners that Republicans say are the backbone of Pennsylvania’s economy and who need to be shielded from taxes and onerous government regulation.

One such small business owner, Sri Kumarasimgam, the proprietor of Pastorante in midtown Harrisburg, now pays about $500 to $600 a month to keep the lights on in his 2,000-square-foot restaurant. But he could see that bill jump by more than $1,300 a year — which is about $110 a month — if the bailout passes.

Ask yourself if you have an extra $110 month kicking around to pay your power bill. And if you do, is that really where you want that cash to go?  The answer is a likely “no.”

On the whole, the argument for bailing out TMI sounds a whole lot like the one that the billionaire owners of major league sports franchises make when they try to extort new stadiums out of the taxpayers. Give us what we want or we’re gone — never mind the dubious economic impact of such a proposition.

Lawmakers are right to pass on it.

But if there is a measurable downside to Three Mile Island shutting down, it’s the impact that this will have on the environment. Nuclear power is a carbon-free energy source.

Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry, which is already getting a sweetheart deal by successfully throttling the life out of a severance tax, would step into the breach. Natural gas is a polluter. And more natural gas means more pollution.

The debate over Three Mile Island, however, has had the salutary effect of finally jump-starting, in a real way, the conversation about hastening our transition to renewable energy.

Nuclear power undoubtedly has to be a part of that portfolio. And there’s a genuine conversation to be had about stabilizing the industry. But there’s simply no good reason to ask Pennsylvanians to again prop up a hobbled plant that’s been the beneficiary of decades of taxpayer largess.

Three Mile Island isn’t the nuclear industry. The nuclear industry will survive irrespective of whether Three Mile Island continues to operate.

Encouraging that stability of that industry without a $500 million bailout, and expanding the use of renewables, is the debate that lawmakers should be really having.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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