Cindi Ross Scoppe

Is Santee Cooper gearing up for the fight of its life?

Santee Cooper CEO Lonnie Carter testifies last week before the SC House’s committee reviewing the VC Summer nuclear project.
Santee Cooper CEO Lonnie Carter testifies last week before the SC House’s committee reviewing the VC Summer nuclear project. tdominick@thestate.com

SCENE 1: The S.C. House Utility Ratepayer Protection Committee. Senators have met twice with SCANA and Santee Cooper officials about their $9 billion failure to construct two nuclear reactors, but this is the first time the House panel hears from the state-owned utility.

The committee requested that at least one board member be present — which seems superfluous since Santee Cooper Chairman Leighton Lord had been CEO Lonnie Carter’s constant companion at both Senate hearings — and the agenda promises “Presentations by Executives and Board Members of Santee Cooper.” But Mr. Carter sits alone facing House members for five hours; he can’t answer their questions about what the board knew and why it made certain decisions.

Mr. Carter, who has announced he will retire once a replacement is named, is more forthcoming than his SCANA counterparts. But like them, he is not here to acknowledge any miscalculations. Not even when Santee Cooper entered into a partnership that required ratepayers to cover 45 percent of the costs of the nuclear project but gave it practically no say over management. Even though a state law encouraged his partner to squander money, by promising that ratepayers would cover all expenses — and furnish a hefty profit — even if the reactors never produced a single watt of energy.

Scene 2: Santee Cooper’s headquarters, four days later. Those previously absent board members vote unanimously to hire former general counsel and executive vice president James Brogdon Jr. as interim CEO. He wins over two other insiders, a former Duke Energy executive and the former state consumer advocate who was backed by the governor who hires but can’t fire the board members.

Mr. Brogdon was Santee Cooper’s general counsel from 2005 until June 2014. That means he was running the legal shop when Santee Cooper entered into that agreement that put ratepayers’ money on the line but gave it practically no control over the project. He was there when Santee Cooper executives first started complaining about problems SCANA wasn’t addressing.

He was gone by the time the secret Bechtel report concluded that the utilities were not providing competent oversight of the project, but the secrecy that was baked into that assessment clearly did not begin with that assessment. Santee Cooper’s unwillingness to warn the public or legislators or even regulators about the depth of the problems clearly traces to the beginning of the joint venture — and Mr. Brogdon was there from the beginning.

Now, it sometimes makes sense to look in-house or to former officials for an interim director. It reduces the learning curve. And it can be reasonable for an agency to want someone who will simply keep the lights on until a permanent leader can be selected — which can be smart when the governor is trying to sell off the agency.

_________

SC nuclear debacle, by the numbers

SC nuclear debacle: an updated timeline

__________

But when you combine the board’s decision to bring back one of the architects of the nuclear debacle with the board members’ refusal to testify before the House panel and Mr. Carter’s continued defense of the agency’s actions throughout the slow-motion meltdown, it’s easy to see an agency that’s gearing up for a fight.

It’s reminiscent of the fights we saw from the old ABC Commission and the Confederate Relic Room and the Commission for the Blind and dozens of other inefficient or unnecessary state agencies that lawmakers wanted to fold into other agencies. Only Santee Cooper is a political behemoth, and it’s fighting to remain a state-owned utility and, should it succeed, maintain its autonomy.

Imagine that finding a buyer isn’t as crazy as it seems. Imagine that utilities two or three or five times the size of SCANA and Santee Cooper foresee a time when Democrats are in control of the Congress and the White House and coal is again under attack, and nuclear remains out of political favor. It might not seem very expensive to pay a few billion dollars for Santee Cooper’s assets and assume its $8 billion in debts if that buys them the assets and a million customers and a federal license to operate two nuclear reactors, which by then might have the construction kinks worked out.

Now, it still might not be smart to sell Santee Cooper. That depends on a lot of numbers, including the difference between rates if customers have to cover Santee Cooper’s nuclear debt and their rates if they have to buy electricity from a private company that has to cover the debt, and make a profit. But if Gov. Henry McMaster can come up with a credible offer, the decision needs to be made by legislators and the governor — not by the unaccountable Santee Cooper board members who thumb their noses at the Legislature and thumb their noses at the governor as they circle the wagons for a fight.

And if he can’t come up with a credible offer, last week’s actions should remind lawmakers — once again — that Santee Cooper’s autonomy was likely one of the reasons the utility didn’t do more to protect its own customers and SCANA’s customers from out-of-control spending brought on SCANA’s incompetent oversight of the project.

If we continue to have a Santee Cooper, it has to be accountable to someone other than itself. That means its rates should be regulated by the Public Service Commission, and the governor should be able to fire its board members when they make bad decisions. Like they seem to keep doing.

More information

Here are some other pieces I’ve written about this that you might find helpful:

These are the people who brought us the SCE&G/Santee Cooper nuclear debacle

Here’s who voted to give SCE&G a blank check

You might want to hold off spending that SCE&G refund check

How much worse was the original Bechtel nuclear report?

Where to hide nuclear secrets? Behind a lawyer, of course

Santee Cooper’s role in SC nuclear debacle looks worse by the day

Does anyone at Santee Cooper remember who Santee Cooper works for?

Carter’s departure doesn’t fix the problems at Santee Cooper. These 2 changes could.

How ‘waste not, want not’ became ‘spend more, profit more’

SCE&G nuclear fiasco: It’s complicated. Here are some explanations.

SCE&G law could cost you more than you imagine

South Carolina’s bizarre government might be driving up your power rates

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

  Comments