An entity dubbing itself “Ohioans for Energy Security” has a warning for the good people of the Buckeye State: The Chinese government is quietly invading our American electric grid; intertwining themselves financially in our energy infrastructure.
Before we get into the details of the one-minute ad in which a suitably ominous voice intones those words over much footage of President Xi Jinping, some context: Ohio recently passed legislation to subsidize struggling nuclear and coal-fired power plants, while also weakening incentives for renewable power and energy efficiency. The law benefits several incumbent power companies, especially FirstEnergy Solutions, the bankrupt merchant-generation arm of utility FirstEnergy. In response, opponents are busy gathering signatures for a petition to put a referendum aimed at scrapping the law on the November 2020 ballot.
The ad warns Ohioans about such people approaching them to sign. And while the ad doesn’t go on to say this, I think I am duty-bound to point out that those clipboard carriers will not necessarily be sporting identifying markers like Chinese-flag lapel pins or T-shirts proclaiming “XI LOVES YOU!”
As my Bloomberg News colleague Will Wade reports, Carlo LoParo, a spokesperson for OFES, explained that state-controlled Industrial and Commercial Bank of China has loaned money to several natural-gas-fired power projects in Ohio. Therefore, as those plants gain market share, so Beijing could gain undue influence over the state’s power system.
Having rejected “compelling,” I’m struggling to find a word that adequately captures the class of logic on display there. Suffice it to say that loans made to power plants by a bank, state-owned or otherwise, do not actually grant that bank or its shareholders ownership of said plants, let alone influence over the grid they supply. Finance and power-market oversight just doesn’t work that way.
LoParo runs a local public relations firm and previously worked on behalf of a group funded by FirstEnergy Solutions that promulgated the bailout legislation. He says the ad was “produced in a way to get your attention,” and I can only agree with him on that. When asked how exactly a bank loan would translate to undue influence over the grid, things got a little fuzzier, and he said we just don’t know the terms of the financing. Not knowing would seem like a good reason to hold off airing inflammatory insinuations -- especially as loans don’t grant equity-like control -- but maybe that’s just me.
I also asked LoParo how OFES feels about Industrial and Commercial Bank of China’s role as a lender to none other than FirstEnergy itself. An amended agreement from last October attached to the parent company’s last 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission lists the Chinese bank as part of a 23-strong syndicate providing a $2.5 billion credit line to FirstEnergy and several of its subsidiaries.
Here’s the thing: That also doesn’t give ICBC any control of FirstEnergy’s operations in Ohio’s power market. But by the comically tortured logic of the OFES ad, surely having a Chinese bank provide credit to the actual owner of the grid presents a similarly sinister challenge? LoParo actually said he would “prefer” FirstEnergy not to take such funding. (A spokesperson told me the company isn’t associated with OFES and doesn’t plan on changing its lending banks).
Indeed, in response to a broader question, he said he would prefer any public or quasi-public Ohio infrastructure project not to take funding from banks controlled by foreign governments. That sounds like a great way to increase the cost of just about everything for Ohioans. One wonders if OFES plans on also going after the federal government over the small issue of who owns all those US Treasuries.
As an abattoir of reason, the ad at least comports with the spirit of this bailout. Consider representative William Seitz, a co-sponsor of the law, who declared years ago that when it comes to renewable energy, Ohio’s legislature wouldn’t continue its “march up state mandate mountain.” But now that the mountain happens to be made of coal and uranium, he has scrabbled up with gusto.
In its vilification of sinister outside forces, the ad displays a certain despicable cunning. It recasts local energy supply as being about other, national hot-button issues promulgated by President Donald Trump, who carried the state in 2016. We have seen this already, of course, not least in Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s attempt to force through subsidies for coal and nuclear plants on national-security grounds. The Chinese link, tenuous as it is, stokes fear and attempts to connect the prior decade’s decline in manufacturing employment -- not confined to Ohio by any means -- to the job losses that result from unprofitable old power plants closing.
This use of labor issues is an extension of Trump’s pledge to coal miners and seems likely to be weaponized more and more as our energy system changes. Faced with implacable forces of falling costs for newer technologies and rising concern about climate change, rallying support for struggling incumbents on the basis of protecting jobs can be a potent populist tactic.
On this front, there is a grim irony to be found in the fact that FirstEnergy Solutions’ emergence from chapter 11 has been delayed due to a dispute with unions about honoring existing collective bargaining agreements. Just as Trump’s love for coal miners has done little to revive their sector, the Ohio state legislature’s subsidies for struggling older plants represent a losing strategy (except for the asset owners). Plus, like OFES’s seeming preference for financial autarky, such subsidies raise costs for everyone, including manufacturers. If folks are worried about interference in Ohio’s grid, they should forget Beijing and start with Columbus.
By Liam Denning
Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. -- Ed.