Ohio lawmakers have passed a bill to weaken the state’s clean energy standards and make compliance with their requirements voluntary until 2019.

After House concurrence this morning on Senate amendments made Thursday night, which reduce the voluntary time period from three years to two, that leaves the fate of Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards in the hands of Republican Gov. John Kasich, who has opposed efforts to extend the state’s clean energy “freeze.”

Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards have been frozen at their 2014 targets for the past two years. If Kasich vetoes the bill, then current law says the standards will resume and be fully enforceable next year.

“A hallmark of lame duck is a flood of bills, including bills inside of bills, and we will closely examine everything we receive,” said Kasich’s press secretary, Emmalee Kalmbach.

HB 554 would prohibit any enforcement on the standards for two more years, “which in my mind is just another extension of the freeze for two years,” said Frank LaRose (R-Hudson). Clean energy advocates agree.

“Today after a two-year freeze on money-saving energy efficiency and job-creating renewable energy, the Ohio Senate decided to kick the can down the road some more,” said J.R. Tolbert at Advanced Energy Economy, shortly after the Senate’s 18-13 vote. “We are encouraged by the Governor’s repeated promise to veto a freeze extension that is bad for business and bad for Ohio.”

Kale and greedy hogs

Lawmakers eager to push the bill through during the lame-duck session railed against enforceable clean energy standards, which they see as unnecessary mandates.

State Sen. Bill Coley (R-Liberty Township) compared the requirement to provide a percentage of energy from renewable sources to forcing people to buy kale, which “tastes like plastic” in his view.

“Let’s let the marketplace work,” Coley said, wondering whether “kale mandates” would come next.

“For four years I’ve listened to the slings and arrows of the enviro-socialist left,” said state Sen. Bill Seitz, who added that the solar and wind energy industries already get breaks in the form of federal tax credits.

“What type of greedy hog needs mandates on top of subsidies?” Seitz asked.

“Let’s talk about really who have been greedy capitalist hogs over several decades,” countered Sen. Mike Skindell (D-Lakewood), who said the wind and solar industries “will not even get close” to the billions of dollars in subsidies provided for the coal and natural gas industries over the years.

‘We need to compete’

Although Seitz argued that Ohio is like “Saudi Arabia in natural gas,” others said the state should support a broad range of energy sources.

“We need to compete. We need to have diversity” in energy sources, Skindell said. “And we need to clean up our environment.”

“Ohio can do it all,” said State Sen. Lou Gentile (D-Steubenville), echoing the importance of diversity and welcoming investment in renewables and energy efficiency. The eastern and southeastern parts of Ohio have the resources for large-scale solar energy, in addition to its existing coal and shale gas production, he noted.

Sen. Cliff Hite (R-Findlay) likewise pleaded for the state to bring back enforceable standards so wind energy development could move forward in the northwest part of the state. “I want a wind win,” Hite said.

Wind energy is “what we depend on in my district” for schools and other necessities, Hite continued. “The money that comes in through these things is amazing.”

Hite even read a statement from Abraham Lincoln about wind’s great “motive power” in response to a charge that he wasn’t “a good Republican because I favor renewables.”

“I think Ohio can be a leader” in Ohio and gas, while also being “responsible about the way we use energy and we generate energy” through renewables, LaRose noted.

“This bill represents a missed opportunity,” LaRose said, noting that the justification for the original two-year freeze was to give lawmakers a chance to figure out how to tweak the original clean energy targets in a way that would keep them affordable. But, he said, “We didn’t get it done.”

Instead, the study committee set up by a 2014 law recommended extending the freeze, along with some other provisions to weaken the standards that made their way into HB 554. Emails published by the Energy and Policy Institute show that when Seitz served on that committee, he sought input on “what that report is going to say” from lobbyists for utilities, as well as Sam Randazzo, an anti-wind attorney who also represents Industrial Energy Users-Ohio.

Although the language of HB 554 now specifies yearly targets, their unenforceability until 2019 essentially achieves the same thing as a freeze extension, critics say.

“Ohio appears to be the only state that is weakening its renewable energy and efficiency programs, while other Midwest states are strengthening theirs,” said Tolbert. As he and Ford see it, HB 554 would put Ohio at a competitive disadvantage for attracting outside investment and business.

“Continuing the freeze without understanding the impacts it will have on Ohio’s competitiveness and reputation is a mistake,” said Ted Ford, president of Ohio Advanced Energy Economy.

“The legislature has failed the people of Ohio by rushing through this fatally flawed bill,” said Trish Demeter at the Ohio Environmental Council. “We urge Governor Kasich to follow through on his promise to veto anything that extends the freeze on clean energy.”

The vote Thursday night “sets up a showdown over Ohio’s future,” said Samantha Williams at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Governor Kasich must veto this legislation to save Ohio from being left behind,” she said.

“The reality is that clean energy is here to stay, but only strong state standards will ensure that Ohio gets to be a player in this increasingly competitive field,” Williams added.

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.