(Bloomberg) –– The voice on the television ad sounds ominous. “The Chinese government is quietly invading our American electric grid,” it says. “Now they’re coming for our energy jobs.”
As the narrator speaks, images of marching soldiers and President Xi Jinping flash across the screen. It ends with a warning: “Don’t sign the petition allowing China to control Ohio’s power.”
The commercial, which has the air of a political-attack ad, is the latest and most bizarre salvo in a bitter fight over a new Ohio law subsidizing two struggling nuclear power plants owned by bankrupt FirstEnergy Solutions Corp.
For months, debate over the measure has spilled beyond the state’s borders. A member of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, Bob Paduchik, urged Ohio lawmakers to support the legislation and stressed that the president backed it, too. And the measure drew opposition from groups as diverse as the Sierra Club and billionaire Charles Koch’s political organization, which blasted it as a corporate “bailout.”
The law, enacted last month, carves out $150 million annually for FirstEnergy Solutions’s Davis-Besse and Perry plants, which the company had said it would close without aid. Ohio will fund it by cutting support for wind and solar. The move is unprecedented. While New York, New Jersey and Illinois all subsidize nuclear power as part of their clean-energy strategies, Ohio is the first to do so by directly yanking support from renewables.
Now environmentalists and others are gathering signatures in support of a referendum to repeal it. But the group behind the television ad, Ohioans for Energy Security, says they’re circulating the petition on behalf of China.
A spokesman for the group, Carlo LoParo, said loans made to natural gas plants in Ohio by state-controlled Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd. give Beijing local influence. If reactors close and gas plants sell more power in the region, Chinese banks “will have significant control over Ohio’s energy grid,” LoParo said in a statement.
“It’s fair to point out that they’re heavily financed not just by foreign lenders, but by a foreign government,” he said in the interview. LoParo declined to say who funded the ad.
The 60-second ad features two people, staring silently at the camera, who in an earlier video supporting the law identified themselves as FirstEnergy Solutions employees. The company, which filed for Chapter 11 last year, declined to comment. The same production company shot both videos, LoParo said.
LoParo, who runs a Columbus, Ohio-based public relations firm, previously represented a separate group that lobbied for the law called the Ohio Clean Energy Jobs Alliance, which was funded by FirstEnergy Solutions. LoParo said he’s had “no interaction” with the company in his current role.
The group is funded by “dark money,” said Gene Pierce, a spokesman for the organization gathering signatures to repeal the law, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts. The notion that the financing of gas plants is tantamount to taking over the power grid is far-fetched, he said.
“Lending money is not the same thing as having a controlling interest,” Pierce said.