West Virginia lawmakers on Monday considered a bill to bail out the Pleasants Power Station, a coal-fired plant that, under an agreement in a bankruptcy case, will stay open until 2022.
House Bill 207 would exempt FirstEnergy’s Pleasants Power Plant in Pleasants County from the business and occupation tax, potentially saving the company more than $12 million annually, First Energy Solutions’ president and CEO testified Monday. The company spends about $400 million a year on the plant, he said.
The bill would exempt “merchant power plants” — an electricity-generating plant not regulated to public service commission rates that sells electricity on the wholesale market and doesn’t sell electricity to retail consumers — from the B&O tax. The Pleasants Power Station is the only plant to fit that definition; another such plant entered a Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreement with Monongalia County.
John Judge, the president and CEO of FirstEnergy Solutions, told lawmakers that losing the power plant would devastate Pleasants County and the plant’s 160 employees. He didn’t have information on how much the employees are paid.
“Without this legislation, the likely outcome is that this plant will close,” Judge said.
The power plant was supposed to close at the beginning of 2019, but the company announced last October that it would stay open until 2022.
Gov. Jim Justice announced at 6 p.m. Friday that the bill would be introduced. Lawmakers on the House Finance Committee voted Monday to move the bill to the floor, where it will be heard Tuesday.
“What’s important here is the ability to keep Pleasants open,” Judge said. He maintained that the $12.5 million savings would make a difference between the plant’s being “profitable and unprofitable.”
FirstEnergy had tried to transfer the 1,300-megawatt plant to its subsidiaries, but the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission blocked the deal, saying it would have forced West Virginians to pay for an unprofitable plant. The West Virginia Public Service Commission approved the deal, subject to several conditions.
“This bill is so incredibly important because we’re talking about saving people’s jobs — good coal jobs — and saving entire counties that would be devastated if this plant were to close for good,” Justice said in a statement. “This is an emergency and I’m calling on the House and Senate to work along with me to act on this as quickly as possible. We have a chance to save whole communities and we need to take it.”
But should the plant stay open, FirstEnergy has no plans to make more hires or widen the scale of the plant, Judge said.
Jay Powell, president of the Pleasants County Commission, said losing the tax revenue was worth keeping the plant open.
“If it closed,” he said, “it would be devastating.”
The Legislature’s decision to let FirstEnergy off the hook isn’t forward-looking, said Laura Yokochi, energy efficiency chairwoman for the Sierra Club’s West Virginia chapter.
“I believe it would be a mistake to ‘bail out’ a coal plant owned by an out-of-state company. Why should we give away our tax dollars to a company that is not paying its fair share of taxes? Why should West Virginians pay for the poor decisions made by FirstEnergy and its subsidiaries?” Yokochi said. “This will also only delay the inevitable. Coal is no longer an economical way to provide energy.”
The plant isn’t on the verge of closing because of taxes, said Karan Ireland, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council — “it’s the market.”
“The most important question that was asked and that should be discussed in more detail is how do they intend to make the plant competitive? There’s no way $12 million a year is going to change their ability to compete,” she said.