Exelon spent millions in lobbying after announcing TMI closure

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
A military aircraft flies near the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station viewed from the borough of Royalton, Dauphin County, Friday, March 15, 2019. The plant's Unit 2 reactors have been shut down since the March 28,1979, partial meltdown. Bill Kalina photo

Exelon Corp. nearly tripled its lobbying expenditures in Pennsylvania between 2016 and 2018 — and it will soon see if that paid off as hearings about subsidizing nuclear energy begin next week.

The struggling nuclear energy industry has attempted to seize on the national push for zero-emissions energy, which in Exelon's case includes both lobbying and campaign contributions favoring Republican lawmakers overseeing the Legislature.

"Exelon has unleashed a successful national strategy spending money to influence outcomes," said Eric Epstein, chairman of TMI Alert, a nonprofit organization pushing for safe energy alternatives to nuclear. "They've successfully achieved bailouts in New York and Illinois."

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The industry's most recent potential savior stems from legislation sitting in the House Consumer Affairs Committee authored by state Rep. Thomas Mehaffie, R-Dauphin County, which would give the nuclear industry $500 million in subsidies annually.

The control room at the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility. January 31, 2018.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Lobbying: The move could save Chicago-based Exelon's Three Mile Island nuclear plant. Exelon announced in 2017 that it would shutter Three Mile Island this September.

In 2018, the company spent $1.78 million on lobbying state elected officials. That nearly tripled what the company spent in 2016 and was by far the greatest amount it spent since 2007.

Years ago, Exelon also boosted its support for candidates for state office. The corporation's political action committee doubled its campaign contributions in 2010 compared with the 2008 cycle, according to campaign finance reports. They continued to increase up until 2014.

"Exelon supports a diverse group of elected officials from both sides of the aisle who share our vision for powering clean communities and supporting the needs of our customers," said company spokeswoman Elizabeth Keating.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, has received more than $56,000 from Exelon since 2002. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, follows the speaker with $37,000 in campaign contributions.

Turzai's spokeswoman declined to comment. Scarnati didn't respond to inquiries for comment by deadline.

Two Democrats made the top 10 list for contributions: Gov. Tom Wolf has received $25,500, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa has received $14,000.

Mehaffie, the subsidization bill's sponsor, has received $2,000 from Exelon.

The spike in donations correlates with former President Barack Obama's tenure. A Chicago native, he had a strong relationship with Exelon and was a large proponent of nuclear energy.

Obama took office during the time period some dubbed as the "Nuclear Renaissance," and the company's contributions to states that preside over nuclear assets mimicked its federal interests, said Epstein.

The Three Mile Island nuclear power facility. January 31, 2018.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Leading up to Exelon's contributions to state lawmakers doubling, a few things happened:

  • Between 2008 and 2012: Nuclear fuel, capital expenses and operating costs increased by 33%, according to Exelon. At the same time, natural gas was becoming cheaper and posed a bigger threat.
  • 2009: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) extended the TMI-1 reactor operations until April 19, 2034.
  • 2010: Exelon estimated it would earn an extra $400 million annually because Obama-era regulations would force a variety of coal-burning plants to close. 
  • 2010: Obama authorized $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to Atlanta-based Southern Co. for the company to build two nuclear reactors. It was the first wave of new reactors in nearly three decades. 

Several happenings also correlated with the 2014 peak in expenditures:

  • 2013: The NRC accepted Exelon's application to increase its Peach Bottom nuclear plant's capacity by 12.4%.
  • 2014: The company also announced a $6.8 million merger with Washington, D.C.-based Pepco Holdings that would "allow us to expand our regulated utilities business to create the leading mid-Atlantic utility."
  • 2014: Exelon reported that unless the market improved, it would close plants by the end of that year. 

"Leadership makes the decisions about the agenda, what gets moved forward and what doesn't," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. "They're in a position to exert influence over their rank and file. (The contributions) aren't uncommon."

Exelon's bid for state subsidies isn't without its backers, especially from environmental activists who cite nuclear as the primary viable source of zero-carbon energy. 

"It's a very low price for reducing carbon emissions," said Michael Shellenberger, co-founder of Breakthrough Institute and founder of Environmental Progress. 

Nuclear energy accounts for 93 percent of the state's energy that doesn't come from fossil fuels or other carbon-spewing sources, he noted.

"If those plants close, Pennsylvania will not meet any of its climate commitments," Shellenberger said.

The loss of nuclear plants would result in lost jobs and an increase in reliance on fossil fuels, proponents argue, especially as technologies for wind and solar power aren't as reliable.

"Pennsylvania cannot stand by and watch all of these benefits disappear as nuclear power plant after nuclear power plant prematurely retires," Mehaffie said in a memo that preceded the rollout of his legislation. "We cannot wait for Washington policymakers and the operator of the regional interstate electric market to solve this problem."

Hearings on the nuclear industry subsidization bill are scheduled for Monday, April 8, April 15, April 29 and May 6 before the House Consumer Affairs Committee.

The hearings will be livestreamed at www.pahousegop.com.

Representatives from the nuclear power industry will be present, as will the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts Coalition.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.