The Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tennessee is shown in this file image from the Tennessee Valley Authority.
TVA denies lobbying or cronyism, cites need for "expertise and analysis"
Editor's Note: This report is a collaboration between Hellbender Press and Hard Knox Wire.
A coalition of environmental groups who joined forces to stop the Tennessee Valley Authority from using ratepayer money to fund trade groups who lobby against the Clean Air Act and other environmental protections filed a federal lawsuit against the utility.
The environmentalists claim the practice potentially raises conflicts of interest and throws into doubt TVA’s willingness to comply with clean air laws even as the utility retires its coal plants in order to transition to a mix of fossil gas and nuclear power.
The 20-page lawsuit was filed Sept. 9 in federal court in Knoxville by a half-dozen groups, including the Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The groups aren’t seeking monetary damages other than court costs and legal fees.
TVA has invested millions of dollars in measurable air quality improvements as it prepares to divest from coal as a main electricity source. Nevertheless, TVA paid membership dues to interest groups such as Edison Electric Institute (which is headquartered five blocks from the U.S. Capitol) and Energy and Wildlife Action Coalition, according to the plaintiff’s suit.
"TVA has not been officially served with the lawsuit, so it would be inappropriate to comment on its specifics," TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said early Thursday.
“As the nation’s largest public power provider and a federal agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority needs to demonstrate leadership by halting the financing of groups propping up the fossil fuel economy,” said Howard Crystal, legal director at CBD’s Energy Justice program. “Instead it funds these groups to do its dirty work while it moves forward with building new fossil gas plants. TVA can and must do better.”
TVA contends it merely wants to get input from multiple stakeholders with multiple perspectives.
"As a federal agency, TVA is prohibited from participating in lobbying activities, and the TVA Board has directed that any dues, membership fees, or financial contributions paid to external organizations not be used for purposes inconsistent with TVA’s statutory mission or legal obligations.
"Like other major utilities, TVA’s membership in a diverse array of external organizations allows TVA access to specialized expertise and analysis that directly benefits all of our customers at a cost significantly lower than if TVA were to undertake such work alone."
Maggie Shober, director of utility reform at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said TVA has a special responsibility to support environmental protections.
“TVA is unique in the power industry in that environmental stewardship and economic development are codified in the agency’s founding mission,” she said. “It is imperative that the largest public power utility operate with accountability and transparency, stop funding anti-environment and anti-green jobs work, and invest in clean energy that will support the health of the Valley and the people who depend on it.”
Daniel Tait, chief operating officer of plaintiff Energy Alabama, said: “TVA has forced its customers to make political speech by taking money from their utility bills and using it for anti-clean energy advocacy. We have repeatedly called on the TVA inspector general to investigate this misuse of customer funds but after hearing and seeing nothing, we felt compelled to act.”
The path to the lawsuit began when the groups used the Freedom of Information Act to discover that TVA paid $200,000 in 2018 to the Utility Water Act Group, which lobbies against parts of the Clean Water Act. They also learned the utility was paying $500,000 a year to join the Edison Electric Institute, a group that represents all private, investor-owned utility companies in the country.