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South Carolina Senate turns wide-ranging energy bill into resolution supporting more power

South Carolina House Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, presides over the House on Wednesday, May 8, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Jeffrey Collins/AP
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AP
South Carolina House Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, presides over the House on Wednesday, May 8, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A bill that power companies call vital to keeping the lights on in South Carolina has been turned into a resolution that only expresses support for the idea by the Senate, which wasn't ready to give more latitude to utilities that cost ratepayers billions.

The Senate agreed on a 39-2 vote Wednesday to gut the House’s 80-plus page energy bill and replace it with a resolution acknowledging the state’s power needs are growing. They also promised to extensively discuss energy matters this fall and have their own legislation ready around the time the General Assembly returns in 2025.

Upset that the Senate wasn't taking up the proposal, the House started attaching it to entirely different bills like one requiring therapists to take suicide prevention training and another to allow firefighters who live outside the state to get cancer health care benefits if they work in South Carolina.

Republican Sen. Tom Davis spent weeks trying to broker the impasse, but many senators, including their leadership, did not want to act quickly to relax rules and safeguards.

Those rules were put in place after state-owned Santee Cooper and private South Carolina Electric & Gas cost ratepayers and shareholders billions of dollars when they collected the money to build a pair of nuclear reactors that were abandoned before construction was finished.

In the end, the best Davis said the Senate could do was the resolution, which he said should be considered a nod to all the work the House did to handle what is an important issue.

“We all have the same objectives. We want to increase capacity in a responsible way. I think it was just a frank acknowledgment the two chambers are at a different points in that process right now,” Davis said.

The proposal now heads back to the House, which has until the regular session ends Thursday to decide if it will accept the Senate's version, insist on its own or just let the matter die.

All 170 members of the General Assembly are up for reelection in November.

The bill was introduced in February and passed the House in about a month. Power companies said they need to revamp South Carolina's rules on utilities to make it easier to build new plants and generate more energy after rolling blackouts were nearly needed on Christmas Eve 2022.

The House bill's short term goal is to make sure private Dominion Energy, which bought South Carolina Electric & Gas after the nuclear debacle, and Santee Cooper can build a natural-gas fired power plant in the Lowcountry. It allowed faster approval of gas pipelines needed for the project.

The long term goals include items such as reducing the Public Service Commission which oversees utilities from seven members, having watchdogs consider the health of utilities as well as the needs for ratepayers as they make decisions and allowing utilities to release less information about some projects publicly before they are approved.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey has said most if not all of those goals are noble. But after working on all kinds of legislation after the construction was halted on the nuclear plants in 2017 he wants to take time and let the Senate hold hearings and study the issue. The House held its own hearings earlier this year.

Massey is especially annoyed Dominion ratepayers are already on the hook to pay for the nuclear plants that never generated a watt of power and are being asked to pay for another power plant.

Nearly half the House was elected after the nuclear debacle in which construction was halted on two new nuclear reactors before they were finished. Three-quarters of the senators were serving when the reactors went bust.