Ohio regulator tied to group opposing renewables

Top Ohio utility regulator tied to group pushing bill repealing state renewable energy targets

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A top state utility regulator who opposed plans for an Ohio solar farm and openly questioned global warming maintained ties with an influential conservative group that supports repealing states' renewable energy requirements.

Todd Snitchler, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, was a keynote speaker at the American Legislative Exchange Council's task force meeting in April 2011. His state ethics filings show he attended another meeting of the council that December, nearly a year after leaving the Legislature to accept Gov. John Kasich's appointment to the commission.

It is unclear what role, if any, Snitchler's continued involvement may have played in a model bill penned by the council, known as the Electricity Freedom Act. The council's board of state legislators approved the legislation in October.

The commission that Snitchler leads is overseeing implementation of Ohio's "25-by-25" standard, which requires power companies to get 25 percent of their electricity from alternative and advanced sources by 2025. Such standards are targeted for repeal under the legislative council's model bill.

Todd Wynn, who leads the council's Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force, said he does not know Snitchler, who was an active ALEC member throughout 2009 and 2010, according to records reviewed by The Associated Press.

"(The council) has always been opposed to energy mandates, but in 2012 we picked up the debates on renewable energy targets specifically," Wynn said. He noted that repeal of Ohio's renewable targets has been proposed before, and said it wouldn't surprise him if it would be proposed again this session.

Holly Karg, the commission's public affairs director, said energy lobbyists attend events of the exchange council, but Snitchler was above the fray.

"He was not being lobbied at those events; he was speaking at them," she said.

His financial disclosure form indicates the commission reimbursed Snitchler for about $175 in meal expenses for the two 2011 meetings. He reported no travel costs.

Snitchler this month joined a 3-1 majority of the Public Utilities Commission in rejecting American Electric Power Co.'s proposal to incorporate power from the Turning Point Solar project into its renewable energy portfolio. The vote — against the advice of commission staff — was criticized as misguided by the power company, environmental advocates and Statehouse Democrats.

In its wake, Snitchler's steady criticism of solar, wind and renewable energy on Twitter over the previous year came to light. Observers said his posts broke with a tradition of public neutrality among utility commissioners on issues they regulate.

Snitchler also posted such items as an article referring to "the myth of Global Warming" and a reference to "the 'green' religion" taking over Christianity.

"The guy is a right-wing ideologue and he doesn't belong in a regulatory body that's supposed to be impartial and protect the consumers, which he's not doing," said Henry Eckhart, a commissioner in the 1970s who now represents utility consumers. "This is just one of a few things that have been objectionable."

Ashley Brown, another former commissioner who now directs the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, said checking ideology at the door is one of the first things he teaches at new-regulator trainings.

"You're never going to remove politics from electricity, but the reason we have regulators is to reduce the politicization of the sector," Brown said. "Part of a regulator's mission is to have filters on what ideologues say, to make deliberative, thoughtful decisions that are fact-based and consistent with the law."

Snitchler's 2011 appearances at American Legislative Exchange Council events continued a pattern of regular attendance at ALEC meetings. At them, lawmakers may be lavishly entertained by corporate sponsors without publicly reporting many of the meals, cigars, drinks and other perks they receive.

Ohio House emails list Snitchler as an exchange council member and an attendee at another four of the group's events in 2009 and 2010, when he was a state representative. The documents were obtained by ProgressOhio, a liberal policy group, through a public records request and provided to The Associated Press. A spokeswoman for the legislative council said the organization does not confirm the names or attendance records of members.

As a lawmaker, campaign finance reports show, Snitchler accepted more than $25,000 in contributions from corporations, political action committees and associations involved in the electricity, natural gas, telephone and transportation sectors he now regulates. That included $9,500 from FirstEnergy Corp. and $1,000 from AEP.

After joining the Public Utilities Commission, Snitchler was prohibited from taking gifts of any kind from the utilities he regulates.

Karg said Snitchler dropped his ALEC membership after leaving the House, but a House spokesman said Snitchler's membership for the 2011-2012 legislative session was never revoked. It remained in effect through December.

Karg said Snitchler's 2012 financial disclosure form, which hasn't yet come due, will show no further ALEC meetings.