CLEVELAND — Amid intense scrutiny of the roles company officials played in an alleged $60 million bribery scheme to obtain a $1 billion bailout for two aging nuclear power plants, Ohio's largest electric utility has announced a goal to become "carbon neutral" by 2050 while reducing greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030.
The announcement this week from Akron-based FirstEnergy came days after several top executives, including CEO Chuck Jones, were fired by the company's independent board of directors for violating company policies and its code of ethics. FirstEnergy announced earlier this week that its chief legal officer and chief ethics officers had been "separated" from the company without explaining the reason for their departures.
Federal authorities have alleged that FirstEnergy secretly funded the effort to win passage of bailout legislation in July 2019 for the northern Ohio nuclear plants operated by a wholly owned FirstEnergy subsidiary at the time. A new independently owned company took control of the plants from the subsidiary, FirstEnergy Solutions, in February in a deal reached in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
FirstEnergy is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Ohio Elections Commission and a panel of independent members of the company's board of directors.
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio is hiring an independent auditor to review FirstEnergy's corporate policies during the period the Ohio Legislature considered the bailout legislation and when federal authorities allege FirstEnergy bankrolled a $38 million campaign led by then-House Speaker Larry Householder to keep an anti-bailout referendum off the ballot.
Householder and four other men were arrested on July 21 and subsequently charged with racketeering in federal court. Householder has pleaded not guilty. Two of the men, including Householder's top aide, pleaded guilty to those charges last week.
Senior Vice President Gary Benz in an interview Wednesday said FirstEnergy, in announcing its new carbon-reduction goals, wants to be "forward-thinking."
"I think this is a really big step for our company," Benz said. "It's an acknowledgement by us that climate change is among the most important issues for our companies. It affects the communities in which we serve."
FirstEnergy is one of the largest investor-owned electric utilities in the country, serving customers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and New York along with 2.2 million customers across northern Ohio.
FirstEnergy plans to reduce emissions at its two coal-fired generating plants in West Virginia by 2050 before closing them in 2050, Benz said. Energy Harbor, the owners of the nuclear plants, took ownership of FirstEnergy's remaining two Ohio coal plants in the bankruptcy deal.
In addition, FirstEnergy plans to purchase electric or hybrid vehicles when replacing trucks in its fleet, including the large aerial vehicles used to repair power lines, building a large solar farm in West Virginia, and use advanced technology to help customers manage their energy use.
Benz declined to comment about the investigations or the lawsuits that have been filed against the company by angry shareholders or the Ohio Attorney General's Office.
Attorney General Dave Yost filed a new lawsuit on Friday seeking to stop money from being collected from nearly all Ohio electric ratepayers beginning in January to pay for the nuclear plant subsidies. Energy Harbor, for now, stands to collect as much as $150 million a year through 2027.
Neil Waggoner of the Sierra Club of Ohio questioned the timing of the statement given the investigations.
"Goals and commitments around carbon reduction are a good thing and a critical step in confronting the climate crisis, but the proof is in the pudding," Waggoner said. "Pledges are admirable, but now let's see the implementation plan."
Benz responded by saying the company has been discussing climate change for years, noting that shareholder interest prompted FirstEnergy to issue a climate report in 2019. The report and the company's climate strategies make the company "hopeful that we will address many of these climate-related questions from our stakeholders," Benz said.
Ohio legislators introduced bills in the days after Householder and the others were arrested in July to repeal and possibly replace the bailout bill known as HB6. Republican lawmakers have said they favor many of the policies in the bill but want audits to be conducted before the nuclear plant's new owner receives any subsidies.