Joe Wheeler EMC chief’s letter blames Biden policies for higher energy costs
By Michael Wetzel
For the Enquirer
A letter from Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corporation’s general manager to ratepayers providing reasons for increases in summer electric bills blamed policies of President Joe Biden, and some co-op members were unhappy with the political comments.
In a letter on co-op letterhead posted on the co-op’s social media page Aug. 9, General Manager and CEO George Kitchens wrote that Biden signed executive orders to cancel a permit necessary for the Keystone XL pipeline and to halt new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters. Those actions “created an artificial shortage of oil and gas,” Kitchens wrote.
The status of the pause in oil and gas drilling lease sales remains cloudy after a series of federal court rulings and the passage of a new climate law authorizing such sales in the Gulf of Mexico and waters off Alaska, but Kitchens’ letter said the executive orders sent a message to petroleum companies that they might be unable “to replace their reserves.”
The letter said, “Sadly, I think some of our politicians are so bent on moving the country to renewable energy that they have lost sight of what makes our country work best. … Elections matter, so please do your best to elect fiscally conservative politicians that understand the energy markets. That will help us all in the long run.”
Kitchens also wrote that the co-op paid the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal entity, 6.566 cents per kilowatt-hour two years ago. In June, the utility paid 7.73 cents per kilowatt-hour. “In July, the price moved to 8.59 cents per kilowatt-hour. Now in August, the price we’re paying is 9.59 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s a 45.99% increase since June 2020,” he wrote. “I hate to get political, but politics are one of the primary reasons that prices have jumped so dramatically.”
The letter posted on the co-op’s Facebook page had nearly 350 comments and more than 600 shares on Thursday. Many comments agreed with a post by Joe Wheeler EMC member Preston Hughes of Langtown that said “politics, religion, and opinions are not needed.”
In an interview about his post, Hughes said, “I’m paying them for their electricity, not their political opinion. My power bill went up from $230 to $496 last month for about the same amount of usage. I don’t want to see your political beliefs. You’re being disrespectful to the (ratepayers) of Joe Wheeler.”
Hughes said Kitchens’ criticism of Biden makes some Joe Wheeler EMC members feel “uncomfortable.”
“How does that letter make liberal ratepayers feel? How does that make Democrats feel?” Hughes asked. “He should keep his political views out of the business of selling electricity. It surely makes the far-left folks feel uncomfortable here. I feel his board is out of touch with the people they serve.”
In a written statement to The Daily, Kitchens explained again why Joe Wheeler members are seeing high utility bills this summer. On his use of political comments, he wrote, “I also attempted to explain how actions taken by the federal government and the current administration directly affect the price our members pay for electricity. Unfortunately, the overall message I was trying to convey got clouded and lost in the ensuing politically charged debate.”
Joe Wheeler EMC spokesman Michael Cornelison said it is not illegal for Kitchens to express political views as part of conducting business.
“We don’t work for the federal government. We’re run by our members and our board,” he said. “The point of the letter wasn’t to criticize anyone. The message got lost there. The letter was to point out that people were complaining about higher electricity bills this year. It wasn’t a criticism of TVA. TVA has to pass those higher costs on to us, and we have to pass them along to our members. …
“It was not a political statement he sent out. He’s under no legal obligation to not speak out what he feels is the cause of this. He wasn’t advocating for one side or the other. The last paragraph sums it up. Realize who you are voting for. It has consequences. It’s not one party or the other. It’s just the facts.”
He said Huntsville Utilities posted a similar statement but didn’t make a political statement.
“It was the same things, inflation, high fuel costs,” he said.
Cornelison said the higher utility bills have resulted in “a lot of members calling to complain. … That is one reason why (Kitchens) put out the statement,” he said. “I wish the message hadn’t got lost in the weeds of politics.”
According to The Associated Press, the high cost of natural gas and oil is, as Kitchens claimed, a major factor in rising electricity costs.
The AP also noted, and Kitchens in his letter did not, that oil and gas prices have risen globally, not just in the U.S. Russia is a leading global supplier of oil, The AP also reported, and its invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and other countries has caused shortages and resulting price increases.
Co-op customer Michael Smith of Hatton, posted that Kitchens made some solid points in his letter.
“I agree we should open more drilling,” his post read. “I also believe there’s an agenda by this administration to push (electric vehicle) sales. However, I don’t think this is the fault of current administration entirely. I think the high cost of gas is the greedy oil companies. It’s very convenient for opposing political parties to blame the ones in power for current U.S. troubles. Both are just taking advantage of the situation. …”
Joe Wheeler EMC board member Charles Teague said he agreed with Kitchens’ letter.
“He was just telling our members why the power bills are up,” Teague said. “George is not against any part of the government. It might seem that way, but his opinion might vary on what they’re doing. Just because you disagree with somebody on one thing doesn’t mean you disagree on everything that person does. He writes articles every month for the (Alabama Living) magazine. He’s always inbounds writing his letters on that stuff. I agree with them.”
Cornelison said Kitchens’ letter to be published in the September issue of Alabama Living will soften the political rhetoric.
Joe Wheeler EMC board chairman Ray Long said Kitchens isn’t required to get board approval before posting his articles.
“It’s his own opinion in his manager’s report,” said Long, who also is Morgan County Commission chairman. “He doesn’t need board approval for his manager’s report. That’s his opinion. I guess he’s calling it like he’s seeing it.”
Decatur Utilities spokesman Joe Holmes said DU also is seeing higher rates from TVA and that cost is passed on to customers.
“We’ve had some complaints about higher rates,” Holmes said. “TVA has increased its fuel cost adjustment significantly and we’ve seen increased usage because of the hot weather. Gas prices are very volatile right now.”
Holmes said Decatur’s cooling degree days data reflects June’s overall daily temperatures for the month were 26% warmer than in June 2021. In July, the increase was 34% over July 2021 numbers.
TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler said his agency was aware of Kitchens’ letter but would not talk specifics about it. He said higher utility bills are impacting families across the Tennessee Valley and said consumers should start seeing lower power bills in the fall because of milder temperatures and lower electricity demand.
“This summer has been a perfect storm of hot weather, record‐high energy demand, and rising fuel costs,” Doug Perry, Tennessee Valley Authority senior vice president of Commercial Energy Solutions, said in a written release. “We’ve been using every tool in our toolbox to keep your power bill as low as possible.”
According to TVA, electric load hit a June record of 31,617 megawatts, natural gas prices are 141% higher this June versus last year, and this summer is shaping to be hotter than normal — last month was Nashville’s second‐hottest July on record.