Court Holds First Hearing in Challenge to Georgia Public Service Commission’s Approval of Plant Vogtle Cost Increases
Atlanta, GA—Today Georgia groups argued before a Fulton County Superior Court in their challenge to the Georgia Public Service Commission’s (PSC) decision to approve a revised price tag amounting to billions of dollars in cost overruns for the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion.
The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) on behalf of Partnership for Southern Equity and Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, and the Barnes Law Group LLC on behalf of Georgia Watch, filed an appeal in Fulton County Superior Court earlier this year, charging that the approval violates state law and the Commission’s own rules, and that it puts the interests of Georgia Power shareholders above customers.
The hearing today provided an opportunity for the parties to be heard on the two pending motions before the Court: a motion to dismiss filed by Georgia Power, and the Georgia groups’ motion seeking limited discovery.
Georgia Power’s motion to dismiss asserts that the PSC’s order in the 17th Semi-Annual Vogtle Construction Monitoring (VCM) Report proceeding was not a final decision, and therefore is not reviewable by the court. In today’s hearing, the groups’ argued that the order was in fact a final decision because it allowed the project to continue, shifted the burden of paying billions in cost overruns to ratepayers, increased the forecasted price tag by 75 percent, and in the words of one Commissioner, was possibly the most important decision the PSC has ever made.
The motion for permission to conduct limited discovery–i.e. get information from the opposing parties, the PSC and Georgia Power–relates to the groups’ claim that those parties violated the PSC’s rule barring behind-closed-door (or ex parte) communications in the crucial days leading up to the Commission’s vote to continue the project.
Since the groups filed the appeal, problems have continued to plague the project. Following the PSC’s approval of a several billion dollar cost increase in early 2018–and less than two months after hearings concluded in the VCM 18 docket–utility shareholders revealed in August that the project price tag had jumped by another $2 billion in capital costs.
After hearing arguments from the parties regarding the two pending motions, the Court is considering the arguments and is expected to issue a ruling sometime in the near future.
“The Commission’s decision was a gift to Georgia Power that it didn’t deserve since it has consistently failed to deliver on this project,” said Nathaniel Smith, Chief Equity Officer at Partnership for Southern Equity. “We need fair, transparent decision-making when it comes to future energy needs, especially considering that many of Georgia’s most vulnerable families and communities are already stuck with higher bills because of Georgia Power’s mistakes.”
“The fact that the total price tag has ballooned another couple billion dollars so soon after the Commission’s approval painfully illustrates why that rushed decision was unreasonable and unfair to utility customers,” said Kate McGregor Mosley, Executive Director of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light. “As the Commission and Georgia Power have repeatedly stated that there is no cap to this swelling project budget, it’s wrong to exclude ordinary Georgians from decisions that force them to take on even more financial responsibility and risk.”
“The Georgia Public Service Commission has a responsibility to protect consumers, and to strike a balance between costs to customers and profits for Georgia Power while providing reliable energy,” said Liz Coyle, Executive Director of Georgia Watch. “That balance has been lost, as this Commission has consistently sided with Georgia Power to the detriment of customers.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Partnership for Southern Equity and Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, and the Barnes Law Group LLC on behalf of Georgia Watch, are appealing the Georgia Public Service Commission’s decision to continue constructing the Plant Vogtle expansion project and approve billions of dollars in cost overruns. In early 2018, the groups filed the appeal in Fulton County Superior Court, charging that the approval violates state law and the Commission’s own rules concerning “ex parte” communications—i.e. private discussions between the Commissioners and one of the parties involved.
In May, the groups filed a joint motion for limited discovery regarding the one-sided communications between the Georgia Public Service Commission and Georgia Power Company in the days leading up to the Commission’s decision to continue the vastly over-budget project, and to present evidence of those communications to the Court.
Under the Commission’s own rules, such secret communications are not permitted after the close of public hearings. The purpose of the ex parte rule is to restore and maintain the public’s confidence that decisions made by the Commission on ratepayers’ behalf are fair and based on what is said in an open and public hearing room and not messages exchanged secretly behind closed doors.
Adopted by the Commission in 2007, the procedural rule forbids the Commissioners and their staff to meet privately with any party once evidentiary hearings on a matter conclude. If any such meetings do occur, the Commission—or the party that engaged in ex parte communications—must give all other parties to the proceeding notice of the communications and an opportunity to respond.
About Southern Environmental Law Center: For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 80 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. www.SouthernEnvironment.org