An effort to overturn Ohio’s controversial nuclear bailout law via voter referendum suffered a setback this week, after a federal judge denied the group's request for more time to collect signatures to put it before state voters next year. 

In a late Wednesday evening decision, U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus, Jr. denied a request from the Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts group for more time to collect the required 265,774 signatures to prevent House Bill 6 from going into effect while it faces repeal.

Instead, Sargus wrote that the issues raised by the group were under the jurisdiction of the Ohio Supreme Court, which "could afford plaintiffs the remedy they seek — a stay of HB 6 and additional time to circulate their petitions." 

HB 6, passed in July by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, is broadly unpopular with the public, according to multiple polls, and has come under withering attack from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups. 

The bill, which went into effect on Tuesday, slashes the state’s existing efficiency and renewable energy mandates, a long-term goal of the Ohio GOP, and redirects the hundreds of millions of dollars a year to support bankrupt utility FirstEnergy Solutions’ nuclear power plants. The surcharges of about 85 cents per month on typical residential customers' utility bills, meant to raise roughly $1 billion for FirstEnergy’s Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants over seven years, won’t go into effect until 2021. 

"We're disappointed, but we're exploring our options with the Ohio Supreme Court," Gene Pierce, spokesperson for Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, told The Toledo Blade.

A high-stakes energy policy battle turns nasty

Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts has alleged that its signature-gathering efforts were targeted by HB 6 supporters in a dirty-tricks campaign that prevented it from hitting its targeted signature numbers. According to its complaints, these tactics included bribing its signature-takers with cash and plane tickets to join an opposing ballot initiative, and in some cases, allegedly threatening signature-gatherers in public.

The Ohio Attorney General’s office is investigating dozens of complaints related to signature-gathering, including activities by pro-HB 6 group Generation Now, which has been accused of hiring “blockers,” or people who will stand in the way of or otherwise interfere with signature-gatherers in public. 

Earlier this month, Sargus granted the group a temporary order preventing enforcement of a state law that requires some paid signature-gatherers to disclose their identities or face criminal penalties, based on allegations that Generation Now had been approaching signature-takers and their employers to pressure them into quitting. 

Another pro-HB 6 group, Ohioans for Energy Security, has gathered 846,000 signatures for a nonbinding petition to prevent China or other foreign investors from controlling energy generation in the state. This is a highly unlikely prospect for Ohio’s aging and uncompetitive nuclear plants, but an effective tagline for an advertising campaign that accuses HB 6 opponents of seeking to hand the state’s grid over to Chinese control. 

FirstEnergy Solutions, the power plant unit of Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year. After failing to win federal support for its ailing nuclear and coal fleet, it turned to state lawmakers, setting a July deadline for legislation to support its nuclear plants, and threatening to close them in 2020-2021 if the state didn't take action. 

Bailing out the Davis-Besse and Perry plants is expected to save about 4,500 jobs and retain a key carbon-free energy resource for the fossil-fuel-heavy state. Other states, including New YorkIllinois and New Jersey, have given financially struggling nuclear power plants incentives to keep their carbon-free generation capacity running, as part of a broader policy push toward decarbonizing their energy sectors. 

But Ohio’s bill also eliminates the state’s renewable portfolio standard of 12.5 percent by 2027, passed in 2008, which has been under attack from state Republicans for years. And it eliminates the nearly $200 million per year, collected in surcharges of roughly $1.69 per month on Ohio utility customers, to fund energy-efficiency and demand-reduction programs. These programs have saved Ohio customers $5.1 billion from 2009 to 2017, according to the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance

HB 6 also imposes a $2.50-per-month charge on utility customers' bills to support two coal-fired power plants owned by the Ohio Valley Electric Corp., a consortium of utilities in the state. Opponents of the plan have challenged the subsidies, saying the law's text inadvertently bars them from participating.