Because the WV Public Service Commission had approved a similar deal for a different company transfer several years ago, FirstEnergy thought it didn't have to try so hard. Its idea to transfer the Pleasants Power Station from its competitive generation company to its WV distribution affiliate was a bold joke, flimsily wrapped in "need" and bad economic projections, submitted with a wink and a nod. FirstEnergy knows that the WV PSC is more interested in the needs of the company than the needs of the ratepayers it was created to protect. Oh, sure, the WV PSC pretends its mission is to "balance" the needs of ratepayers with the needs of the community at large and the needs of the utility. However the utility is perfectly capable of advocating for its own needs, and the communities are so bought out by corporate profits that they act like yappy lap dogs, barking at corporate direction. It is the ratepayers who rely on the regulatory system to protect their interests. Indeed it is the very nature of a monopoly situation that requires regulation to protect ratepayer interests. FirstEnergy's WV affiliate has been granted a monopoly franchise to serve West Virginians. Because FirstEnergy has a monopoly, regulation serves to provide competition where none exists naturally. It is regulation that controls utility actions to ensure a monopoly does not exert market power over captive ratepayers. Therefore, the WV PSC exists first and foremost to protect the needs of WV ratepayers captive in a monopoly system. Perish the thought that FirstEnergy would have to perform and earn its right to own a monopoly franchise. That thought has probably never even crossed the minds of WV's PSC Commissioners. They seem to think they exist to make sure the utility is treated fairly. And that's what they did in the recent Pleasants transfer case.
Knowing that the WV PSC is a captured agency who dances at corporate will, it was much more productive for ratepayers to look beyond the first string of regulators who are supposed to protect them. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission isn't as wrapped up in the needs of West Virginia's economy or corporate profits, and is not captured in the same way as the WV PSC, whose commissioners are appointed as lobbied by state franchised utilities. The chances were better that an impartial decision would be made at the federal level. And it was. The FERC rejected FirstEnergy's proposal to transfer the plant between affiliates, finding that the transfer resulted in improper cross-subsidization. In plain speak, that means that it was not a fair arm's length transaction. But FirstEnergy, in its sheer arrogance, attempted to apply its West Virginia bag of tricks to influence the federal agency. That's right, FirstEnergy had its attorney call up a FERC Commissioner to try to influence the agency's decision. Somehow, FirstEnergy was aware "that the Commission would shortly issue an order adverse to the interests of Monongahela Power." How was it that a party to a FERC proceeding was aware of a decision of the agency before it was issued? Because FERC is as much a revolving door regulatory agency as any. It's a great landing spot for attorneys fresh out of law school with a mountain of student debt. With just a few years of effort at marginal pay, a FERC staff attorney can make himself marketable to private industry as an "insider." The regulated entities prize these FERC insiders and pay them handsomely. FERC is just a springboard to fat paychecks for some attorneys. That's not to say that all FERC attorneys are using the agency to pad their resumes, I found that there are plenty of staff who take their charge to protect public interests seriously and make a career out of it. Those public employees are treasures, but as you can see, it only takes a handful of bad ones to trash FERC's public service mission. I'm happy to realize, though, that one of FERC's Commissioners put a stop to this underhanded effort and reported the illegal contact from FirstEnergy's attorney. Bravo! But what happens to the attorney who attempted this improper influence? I'm thinking that FirstEnergy's attorney knew calling up the Commissioner like that was against the rules. But he did it anyhow. Why isn't he barred from practice before the agency in the future? The only thing he seems to have received is some exposure. No harm, no foul, he's free to repeat this behavior in the future, perhaps with a Commissioner who may not blow the whistle on him. It is only when improper behavior comes with significant consequences that it will end.
And why did FirstEnergy think improper influence on FERC would save their bacon? Probably because it works in other jurisdictions. I believe that if the same situation played itself out in West Virginia, for instance, that ending the contact and reporting the encounter would not occur. FirstEnergy only does this because it works.
So here we are again at regulation acting as safeguard in a monopoly situation. It's a lesson the WV PSC never seems to learn.
And what happened in West Virginia after FERC disapproved the transaction? The WV PSC approved the transfer, saying that the unfairness of affiliate transactions didn't matter. The WV PSC was totally unconcerned about the fairness of the transaction and whether it violated the concept of competition in an open market where a utility did not have a monopoly. The WV PSC tried to pretend it actually listened to public comment and considered it in its decision. That's a first, but it was contrived nonsense. The WV PSC's decision to approve the transfer was nothing short of a display of disgusting arrogance. Someone's fee-fees seemed pretty bruised that the company did not accept their offer to approve the transaction with a delay. Everyone got some backlash. The Consumer Advocate gets chastised for protecting consumers:
The CAD takes no prisoners in its attempt to “advise” the Commission of its responsibilities. In its Reply Brief, the CAD emphasizes the gravity of the situation by stating that, if this Transaction is approved, “the harm that redounds to West Virginia captive ratepayers will be a legacy of this Commission.”
The WV PSC treats "risk" as a non-starter. The PSC thinks risk exists everywhere and assumption of risk should not be a primary concern in their decision. Except the company failed to accept the PSC's conditions on approval, stating:
Additionally,the Companies will not accept the conditions included in the Commission Order that would result in Mon Power assuming exposure and significant commodity risk, which is inconsistent with FirstEnergy’s announced corporate strategy.
FirstEnergy failed. Although it was a rough ride with some hairy, scary moments, ultimately the company ends up stuck with their own mess. We just get the bill.