By Elizabeth Ouzts
Regulators clarify that utilities cannot charge ratepayers for political spending, but they’re free to spend profits on campaigns, including dark money groups.
New rules on Duke Energy and other utilities will help ensure ratepayers don’t foot the bill for image-boosting ads, political contributions, or the flock of lobbyists the companies regularly dispatch to the North Carolina capitol.
But the guidelines will do little to stem the millions that Duke shareholders are pouring into state politics or shed new light on exactly where most of their money is going — realities largely beyond the control of state utility regulators.
Still, NC WARN, one of the nonprofits that petitioned for the rules in 2018 and a frequent Duke critic, welcomed the regulations as a “partial victory.”
“They have to spend all of this influence money to keep the other two legs of their business model going, which is to build stuff and raise rates,” said Jim Warren, the group’s director.
“This doesn’t stop that, but it stops them from soaking customers for it.” He added, “and it draws attention to the odious nature of the business practice.”
While the rules apply to all publicly regulated utilities, the petitioners’ main target was Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based monopoly that produces, transmits, or sells virtually every electron in the state.
Duke radio and television ads touting its commitment to renewable energy and plans to cut carbon emissions have long irked advocates who contend the spots belie the company’s plans for a spate of new fossil fuel plants and a meager increase in solar.
What’s more, NC WARN and Friends of the Earth argued in their petition, Duke is already guaranteed customers by geography.
“Why should a monopoly be permitted to expend a substantial amount of customers’ money to advertise,” they wrote, “when there is no competition?”
Duke’s political spending has also raised hackles. While the company can’t give directly to candidates or their committees, it can spend vast sums on other groups with political aims.
In the last 18 months, the company has donated nearly $700,000 to political groups Citizens for a Responsible Energy Future — a creation of its own former executives — and GOPAC, Inc. — which promotes Republicans. In 2020, filings to federal regulators show Duke’s two utilities spent a combined $16.3 million on “Certain Civic, Political, and Related Activities.”