Last Friday, Gov. Tomblin announced that he had chosen former Kanawha County Sen. Brooks McCabe to replace Ryan Palmer on the WV PSC. The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward offered a look at the appointment and a bit of McCabe’s record.
As Ward points out, McCabe has historically supported WV’s almost total dependence on fossil fuels for its electricity, while also muttering about diversifying our generation mix and keeping electricity costs lower. Unfortunately for Mr. McCabe, these goals are contradictory. Here is an example of the new commissioner’s confused thinking from a 2011 story in the Beckley Register-Herald:
McCabe sees the nuclear industry shifting gears into smaller facilities that are cheaper, less invasive and more readily able to gain permits.
“Even with that, I don’t expect to see nuclear power in West Virginia in my lifetime,” the senator said.
“But the reason to eliminate the ban on it is, assuming there is a viable alternative out there, if we are an energy state, we ought to say we’re an energy state and not exclude anyone. In reality, we’re going to be focusing on coal, natural gas, geo-thermal and wind. And a little bit of biomass, maybe. That’s West Virginia’s future, and it primarily, in the near term, is coal and natural gas, and then, over time, it will move over into renewables.” From his own view of the energy situation, McCabe said the nation must devise a means of making the country self-sufficient, sooner rather than later.
“Nuclear will have some part of that equation,” he said.
In formulating his confused ideas about “making the country self-sufficient,”Mr. McCabe apparently missed this information from the US Department of Energy:
Owners and operators of U.S. commercial nuclear power reactors buy uranium in various forms as well as enrichment services from other countries. U.S. nuclear plants purchased 58 million pounds of uranium in 2012 from both domestic and foreign suppliers; 83% of this total was of foreign origin. About 38% of the enriched uranium needed to fabricate fuel for U.S. reactors was supplied by foreign enrichers.
Since 2009, former Sen. McCabe pushed for reducing WV’s restrictions on the construction of nuclear power plants in the state. These restrictions are often referred to as a “ban” by Mr. McCabe, but they are actually pretty commonsense requirements. The Martinsburg Journal provided this explanation in a 2009 article:
While not forbidding nuclear power plants, the 1996 law sets several hurdles for one. They include a requirement that the country have a dumping site for radioactive waste that has operated safely and effectively for at least two years.
The US has never had a repository for still highly radioactive “spent” nuclear power plant fuel and is not likely to have one for the foreseeable future. The current Fukushima disaster (it won’t be over for a few thousand years) included a partial meltdown in a storage pool for waste nuclear fuel rods which were stored on site, as with most US nuclear reactors. Because there is no permanent, safe repository for radioactive nuclear fuel once it is removed from reactors, nuclear power in the US is still an ongoing experiment.
I attended the 2013 WV Building Conference in Morgantown and listened as then-Sen. McCabe stated from the podium that “the free market” should decide WV’s electrical generation mix. As with his nuclear power claims, Mr. McCabe appeared to be particularly uninformed about the situation he was describing. There is no “free market” in electricity in WV. WV law grants monopoly power to electric utilities regulated by the WV PSC. The wholesale transactions for regional electricity, as well as transmission management which also imposes costs on WV electric customers, are all controlled by PJM Interconnection’s artificial and bureaucratic “markets” which mainly operate to serve the interests of large, non-WV holding companies.
I am also somewhat concerned that Gov. Tomblin failed to choose another lawyer for the PSC. The PSC operates primarily in a legal environment. Any decision that the Commissioners make can be appealed to the WV Supreme Court. Of course, there is little threat of appeal from citizens or even the PSC’s own Consumer Advocate Division, because they have little or no money to pursue appeals. Utilities, particularly the two Ohi0-based holding companies that control WV’s electric companies, have lots of money and have no qualms about appealing any PSC decision that hurts their bottom line.
If the WV PSC is going to support innovation and lower utility costs, instead of the interests of utilities and their shareholders, we need commissioners who are skilled lawyers who can write orders that will stand up to utility appeals to the WV Supreme Court. Mr. Palmer demonstrated this kind of skill and confidence when he took the rare step of filing a dissenting opinion on the FirstEnergy Harrison case.
Mr. McCabe is not a lawyer and will likely defer to the legal opinions offered by PSC Chairman Mike Albert. Mr. Albert spent decades representing corporate utility holding companies in WV when he was an attorney at Jackson Kelly. Mr. McCabe simply will not have the skills to develop his own legal analysis independent of Chairman Albert.
I hope I am wrong about Mr. McCabe. I was wrong about Mr. Palmer when Gov. Manchin appointed him back in 2009. And the McCabe appointment certainly could have been worse. There were rumors that the Governor had been considering another Jackson Kelly attorney for the position.