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A History of Bowing to Energy Companies

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Originally published in The Washington Post

By Robert Weiner and Brendan Agnew

In October, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced her willingness to allow Chicago utility company Exelon's $6.4 billion takeover of Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco), the company that provides District residents' electricity.

Her approval, which means the merger discussions will continue, came as a surprise because the D.C. Public Service Commission rejected the merger in August. The commission unanimously opposed the deal on the grounds that it would "inhibit [Pepco] from moving forward to embrace a cleaner and greener environment."

The commission argued that Exelon's history of lobbying against renewables would create a conflict of interest in trying to meet the District's energy goals and cited legislation the group pushed in Illinois to deny financial incentives for wind and other renewables.

The mayor was swayed by lofty promises of new jobs and investment in renewables initiatives, a familiar refrain when dealing with energy companies. But most of the jobs are already here, the elimination of jobs for efficiency was not considered, and the investments are a fraction of what the company probably intends to make in profits under the deal.

Big energy interests winning against D.C. residents is becoming a familiar story.

In 2013, District Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan sued ExxonMobil, Capitol Petroleum and others for allegedly manipulating prices at the pumps in the District. Exxon's oil-refining subsidiaries had struck exclusive supply deals with about 60 percent of the city's gas stations, including almost all of the Exxon, Shell and Valero stations, effectively shutting out competition and allowing them to set retail prices as high as they'd like, the suit argued.

The D.C. Superior Court granted ExxonMobil's motion to dismiss the case in 2014. ExxonMobil argued that under the District's Retail Service Station Act, the attorney general had "neither expressed nor implied statutory authority" to investigate gas prices. The regional gasoline distributorships were allowed to keep their supply arrangements. Meanwhile, D.C. gas prices hover above the national average as other regions experience dropping prices.

Because the problem is D.C. law, the law could be changed by the council. D.C. Councilmember Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) proposed an amendment to the law, but the council never voted on it.

Now, by supporting Exelon's takeover of Pepco, the mayor has shunted aside the interests of consumers and the environment in one fell swoop. Despite her promised ratepayer protection fund, Bowser's deal would allow Exelon to hike rates in a few years and by as much as 45 percent, according to analysis by the Community Power Network.

The mayor's office also faces accusations of approving the deal as a means of funding the proposed D.C. United stadium, raising questions about Bowser's priorities.

Bowser pledged to "show the rest of the country what's possible" by "making the District a greener, healthier city." Kowtowing to big energy isn't the leadership on renewable energy or consumer prices that Bowser's supporters had in mind.

The District promises to keep consumer prices low but caves to oil and power companies for dubious reasons and pie-in-the-sky promises. Instead of setting a national model for consumer protection, the nation's capital is showing how to bow to powerful interests.

Robert Weiner is a former spokesman for the Clinton White House and the House Government Operations Committee. Brendan Agnew is economic policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change.

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