A proposed settlement in FirstEnergy Corp.’s controversial rate plan pending in front of state regulators could be filed in coming days.

But even if a settlement between Akron-based FirstEnergy and other parties is filed, the ultimate decision maker is the five-member Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and that will take time, said a PUCO spokesman.

FirstEnergy’s rate case, which has been pending since August of last year in front of the PUCO and just completed two months of hearings, has been controversial with opponents, who call it a “coal bailout.”

The company said its request would allow continued operation of the two higher-cost plants, although less expensive energy may be available today on the open market. The company has said it cannot afford to keep the two plants operating without additional customer support.

Opponents say the proposal will cost customers $3.1 billion over 15 years, while the company says it will save customers $2.1 billion.

At least one opponent, the Sierra Club, on Wednesday, said it withdrew from the settlement talks and said others followed their lead.

Discussions for a settlement, often called a stipulation, are normal parts of cases, said Matt Schilling, PUCO spokesman.

The PUCO staff is a part of the settlement discussions, as are many parties to the case, said Schilling.

“In any stipulation, the commission can accept it outright, reject it outright, or modify it based on the case record,” he said. With time for comments on any settlement, there is no time frame that is set determining when the commission must act, he said.

The PUCO staff acts as expert witnesses and is “one of the many parties that advises the commission. The commission is not bound by anything the staff does, but does take their opinion, like everyone else’s, into consideration,” he said.

FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider said the electric utility is in discussions with “key parties” to reach a “positive outcome.”

“We’re confident we will reach a settlement that will serve the best interests of Ohio’s electric customers and retain key power plants that employ thousands of Ohioans,” he said.

Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign Senior Campaign Representative Dan Sawmiller said his organization formally withdrew from talks on Wednesday.

“The expedited discussion with FirstEnergy and the PUCO staff amounted to nothing more than being asked to agree to a pre-negotiated, back-room deal that would harm Ohio’s businesses and homeowners. Any proposed deal that would bail out uneconomic coal and nuclear plants has no chance of survival, and the commission should forcefully reject it. If the commission moves forward with the staff’s proposal, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice will fight this back-room deal to its ultimate defeat.”

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty.