Senator warns ratepayers of energy company's "crack cocaine" deal to buy SCANA

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Would you like $1,000 cash right now or would you rather save almost $4,000 on your electric bills over the next two decades? Some state senators say that's what the proposed deal to buy SCANA boils down to.

Tuesday, the CEO of the company hoping to buy SCANA answered those senators' questions at the State House.

"It is the largest refund by a utility in the history of the United States,"  the CEO, Thomas Farrell, said as he began addressing the Senate committee.

Farrell, CEO of Virginia-based Dominion Energy, played the role of salesman.

"We will roll back electric rates by at least five percent:  $7.00 to $7.50 a month for a typical residential bill," he told them. "It is our firm commitment to keep SCE&G headquarters in Cayce with local leadership."

He also hit on what could be considered his biggest selling point: a $1,000 cash refund for SCE&G customers who helped finance the failed nuclear project.

"If the approval process goes as we hope, those checks could arrive in customers' mailboxes by this fall," Farrell said.

Unfortunately for Farrell, most of the senators on the panel didn't seem to like what he was selling. That includes Senator Mike Fanning (D-Fairfield), who began his remarks and questions by asking electric company lobbyists in the room to stand. Most of the seated observers hesitated and then stood – some of them with smirks.

"Folks, that is what Fairfield County is up against right here," Fanning said earnestly, without missing a beat. "That is what the people of South Carolina – the ratepayers – are up against. Right here."

Fanning then turned his attention to Dominion CEO Farrell, who seemed to present his merger with SCANA as a solution with no good alternative.

"This morning, you walk in here and now I feel like I have a gun to my head," Fanning told him.

Senators like Fanning won't get a vote to approve or deny the merger, but he could help derail it. Fanning and others hope to repeal the controversial Base Load Review Act, a roughly decade-old act that has allowed electric rates to be raised time-and-time-again to pay for the nuclear construction that ultimately ended in failure.

Without much of those current raised rates intact, Dominion has said it can't move forward. And without Dominion, SCANA could go bankrupt, the CEO warned senators.

"I think it's a bluff," Senator Shane Massey (R-Edgefield) told Farrell. "I think it's a bluff."

Senator Massey doesn't buy the threat of bankruptcy. He also believes there's a possibility SCANA could survive a bankruptcy.

On multiple occasions Tuesday, Farrow acknowledged that Dominion's plan to buy SCANA isn't perfect. However, he said it's "very good."

"Mr. Farrell said he didn't want perfect to be the enemy of the very good. Folks, we're so far from perfect, we can't see it with a telescope," Massey responded in an interview.

Fanning is skeptical of Dominion's promises too. He's urging his constituents – many of whom lost jobs when the Fairfield nuclear project ended – against the bait of a thousand dollar refund.

"It gives them something up front that gets them addicted to the crack-cocaine, which is 13% higher rates for the next 20 years, and if you just take this thousand dollars now, you'll be better for the next 20 years, and that is not true. It's going to collect $4,000 for every $1,000 you give somebody," he said.

While all eyes watch for what lawmakers do next, the Dominion deal will also need approval from the majority of SCANA shareholders and the Public Service Commission. If everything goes as Dominion has planned, refund checks would be sent to customers in the fall.

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