WASHINGTON – A shadowy political committee funded entirely by Duke Energy has launched a deceptive campaign to pressure North Carolina lawmakers to oppose legislation that could pave the way for lower monthly utility bills for most ratepayers.
Elizabeth Ouzts of Energy News Network reported that Citizens for a Responsible Energy Future, or CREF, has received at least $500,000 from Duke Energy and is run by two former Duke executives. The group is a so-called 527 political committee, which is tax-exempt and can raise unlimited funds from individuals and corporations. Its website lists only a post office box in Raleigh, the state capital, and provides no information about its officers or activities.
Since late March, CREF has run Facebook ads targeting state legislators who have led efforts to block Duke’s push for a plan that would limit customers’ ability to oppose rate hikes. Those same lawmakers have introduced legislation to study a proposal to increase electricity competition in the state, which Duke has lobbied against.
“Of course Duke is funding a front group attacking those advocating for competition and lower rates in North Carolina,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “The last thing this monopoly utility wants is competition. For years they’ve gotten away with sticking their captive customers with steep rate increases to pay for wasteful boondoggles like pipelines, natural gas plants and nuclear reactors that cost billions of dollars more than they promised.”
Cook and EWG are founding members of the Duke Energy Accountability Coalition, which is made up of public interest, social justice, watchdog and environmental groups, many located in Duke’s service territories, that have joined forces to hold the nation’s largest investor-owned U.S. electric utility accountable for its policies and practices, including its repeated rate hike schemes.
The Duke-backed group is using the recent cyberattack on the Colonial pipeline, which created a gasoline shortage along much of the East Coast, to scare consumers with the false notion that a similar power shortage could happen if the legislation to study the public benefits of electricity competition becomes law. The group also used the specter of big tech companies, like Facebook and Google, somehow taking control of electricity in the state to panic North Carolinians and bully lawmakers into opposing the measure.
The two lawmakers in the crosshairs of CREF are state representatives Larry Strickland, a Johnson County Republican, and John Autry, a Charlotte Democrat. Last year, Strickland introduced an amendment that effectively derailed Duke’s top legislative priority, which would have allowed the utility to put a multiyear rate increase plan in place. Autry co-sponsored the amendment.
The amendment, which passed 63 to 51, would have reformed the ratemaking structure, with the goal of giving customers more say in how much they pay each month for electricity, including studying the benefits of a regional transmission operation, or RTO, in the Southeast energy market.
RTOs, which are regulated not by states but by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, are voluntary agreements neighboring states enter into to inject competition into regional electricity markets. Competition would lower the monthly bills and make the electricity more efficient and reliable.
Duke Energy is a monopoly utility with near-total control over North Carolina’s grid. If Duke were pushed into an RTO, it could lose its current grip on its captive ratepayer, who would be free to seek out potentially cheaper energy options.
“Everyone understands that the assertion in these dark money ads, that Rep. Larry Strickland wants to raise utility rates, is ludicrous and absurd,” Dee Stewart, a Republican strategist and consultant with the nonprofit Conservatives for Clean Energy, told Ouzts.
In another ad, the group referred to RTOs as a “Really Terrible Option” and falsely warned North Carolina residents, “If out-of-state companies control our power, we’ll pay more, big tech will pay less, and thousands could lose their jobs.”
The flood of negative and dishonest ads by CREF comes as momentum for a regional electricity market through the creation of an RTO grows among elected leaders in the Southeast. Last September, legislators in South Carolina passed a bill similar to Strickland’s proposal to examine whether electricity competition could lower rates for the residents in that state.
South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican, responded to the attack on Strickland with a tweet:
The attack ad campaign also comes while closed-door negotiations are taking place between Republican leaders in the North Carolina legislature, Duke lobbyists and other industry representatives over comprehensive energy legislation to be introduced at some point this year. Democratic lawmakers, environmental and public interest groups, including those advocating for low-income consumers, have been locked out of the discussions.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.