Murphy Murky on Plan to Subsidize PSEG Nuclear Plants

Tom Johnson | December 20, 2017 | Energy & Environment
Critics line up to block bill but some feel efforts are wasted and legislation will sail through regardless

Gov.-elect Phil Murphy yesterday weighed in, sort of, almost backing a plan for the state to subsidize nuclear power, but then wavered a bit by adding not at the expense of clean energy.

Asked at a press conference whether he favors giving Public Service Enterprise Group a subsidy, Murphy dodged a direct answer, saying, “We have no question whatsoever about the objective here, which is to keep, assuming they’re operated safely, to keep these nuclear plants.’’

PSEG, citing economic challenges, has threatened to close its three units in South Jersey unless it receives financial assistance to keep them operating. The plants provide roughly 40 percent of the state’s power and 90 percent of its carbon-free electricity.

Murphy’s comments, the first to address the issue since a bill became public five days ago to provide up to $300 million a year to PSEG to avert the plants shutdown, came on the eve of a critical legislative vote on the issue today in the Statehouse Annex.

The nuclear bridge

Murphy, whose gubernatorial campaign won wide environmentalist support because of an aggressive clean-energy platform, cited the importance of nuclear as the biggest bridge the state has to a 100 percent clean energy future.

“What we don’t want to do,’’ Murphy added, ‘’we don’t want to accomplish that at the expense of developing the green, alternative-energy economy, which we must desperately develop aggressively alongside that bridge. There’s no question about the what, we’re looking at the how.’’

The legislation (S-3560), on the fast track to be approved in the remaining three weeks of the lame-duck session, is facing opposition from a diverse coalition of energy competitors, business interests, environmentalists, and consumer advocates.

Trying to derail a bill moving at unusual speed through the legislative process, opponents held a press conference yesterday in Trenton, saying the measure is unnecessary; is a huge tax on consumers; and will block Murphy’s avowed clean-energy agenda.

“These decisions need to be made by the next governor,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey. “Don’t undercut your own energy policy.’’

Gathering speed

But momentum seems to indicate otherwise. Sen. Bob Smith, the chairman of one of the committees hearing the bill, said yesterday he expects to move the bill despite the calls to slow the process.

“The stars are aligned to get us where we need to go,’’ said Smith, who added he believes the plants are profitable, but not making enough money to remain open based on what the company has shown him. “Could we do a better deal with a new governor? Who knows? With Gov. Murphy, I know I can get the other stuff done.’’

The “other stuff” refers to the new investments in clean energy, a step Gov. Chris Christie has ruled out accepting in a bill that lands on his desk. Otherwise, he has signaled he would support the subsidy effort.

PSEG needs to open its books

But critics of the bill said it falls far short of providing an open look at the company’s finances that is needed before committing ratepayer money to subsidize the plants.

“It reflects a level of greed that would make Gordon Gekko proud,’’ said Steven Goldenberg, an attorney representing large energy users, such as pharmaceutical companies.

Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, said the ratepayer subsidies will support already profitable plants.

Michael Jennings, a spokesman for PSEG, said the company is sympathetic to ratepayers, but added the opposition is being disingenuous. “The cost to customers will be far greater if the plants were to close,’’ he argued, as studies have shown.

But even opponents seemed resigned that their message was failing to resonate with lawmakers. “This is something that is being forced down from the top,’’ Goldenberg said. “That’s the biggest threat that we’re up against.’’