Where ethics and utility profits intersect, a stain spreads across the “Virginia Way”

Dominion buildingThe Virginia General Assembly has punted on ethics reform, preparing to pass watered-down legislation that does very nearly nothing. At the same time, legislators are about to pass a law that will cost Dominion Power’s customers more than half a billion dollars as a down payment on a nuclear plant that hasn’t been approved and isn’t likely to be built.

These are not separate issues.

Virginia has had an ethics problem since long before Bob McDonnell met Jonnie Williams. As many people have noted, the real scandal is how hard it is to break our ethics laws. So long as you fill out a form disclosing the gift, it’s legal for politicians to accept anything of value from anyone, to use for any purpose. By this standard, McDonnell’s biggest failure was one of imagination.

The legislation that appears likely to come out of the General Assembly merely puts a $250 cap on the price tag of any one gift, with no limit on the number of lesser gifts and no limit on the value of so-called “intangible” gifts like all-expense-paid vacations. The mocking of this bill has already begun.

Conveniently, the bill deals with a tiny side stream of tainted cash compared to the river of money flowing from corporations and ladled out by lobbyists. Corporations don’t usually give out Rolexes and golf clubs. Instead, they give campaign contributions. Here again, Virginia law places no limits on the amount of money a politician can take from any donor. Five thousand or seventy-five thousand, as long as your campaign reports the gift, you can put it in your wallet.

And here’s the interesting part: you don’t have to spend the money on your campaign. If gerrymandering has delivered you a safe district, you can use your war chest to help out another member of your party—or you can buy groceries with it. The distinction between campaign money and personal money is merely rhetorical. A spokeswoman for the State Board of Elections was quoted in the Washington Post saying, “If they wanted to use the money to send their kids to college, they could probably do that.”

In an eye-popping editorial, the Post ripped into one Virginia delegate who charged his campaign more than $30,000 in travel and meals, and another $9600 in cellphone charges, in the course of just 18 months.

As with taking the money, the only rule in spending campaign funds is that you file timely paperwork showing what you spent it on; the reports are not even audited. The theory originally may have been that the threat of public disclosure would keep a gentleman from taking money from unsavory persons. If you took it anyway, the voters would learn of it and throw you out. How quaintly respectful of the energy and capabilities of voters! How pre-gerrymandering.

And how pre-corporation. The smartest companies today spread the wealth around: more to the legislators in charge of the important committees, less where they just need floor votes. The largesse is bipartisan, making everyone happy but the voters. Certainly, a legislator who accepts thousands of dollars from a lobbyist would be churlish to criticize the company writing the check.

So what do you call someone who pays for his meals out of the check he gets from a company?

How about, “an employee”?

Environmental groups and good-government advocates have long decried the influence of corporate money in Virginia politics. In their 2012 report, Dirty Money, Dirty Power, the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, and Chesapeake Climate Action Network documented the rising tide of utility and coal company contributions to Virginia politicians, coinciding with a series of votes enriching these special interests.

Dominion Power has consistently led the “dirty money” pack. As the single largest donor of campaign funds aside from the Republican and Democratic parties themselves, its influence in Richmond is widely acknowledged, even taken for granted.  Most legislators will not bother to introduce a bill that Dominion opposes, even if they like it themselves. Critics joke that the General Assembly is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dominion Resources.

According to Dirty Money, Dirty Power, Dominion’s contributions to elected officials totaled $5.2 million from 2004 to 2011. The Virginia Public Access Project shows another $1.4 million in 2012 and 2013. The contributions overall somewhat favor Republicans, but often the contributions are so even-handed as to be comical, like the $20,000 each to Mark Herring and Mark Obenshain in the Attorney General’s race last fall. These contributions are not about supporting a preferred candidate; they are about buying influence.

Note that much of the donations don’t go directly to General Assembly members but to the parties’ PACs, which then dole out the money. This gives Dominion extra influence with party leaders—again, on both sides.

The result has been spectacularly successful for Dominion, which rarely fails to get its way. Bills it opposes die in subcommittee (witness this year’s bills to expand net metering). Bills it wants succeed.

That brings us to this year’s money bills. As you may have read here or in Virginia papers, Dominion has been “over-earning,” collecting more money from ratepayers than allowed by law. In the ordinary course of things, this would result in both a rebate to customers and a resetting of rates going forward to produce less revenue for the utility.

For Dominion, the solution is a bill that lets the company charge ratepayers for expenses it isn’t entitled to pass along under current law. (Indeed, in a nice touch, the bill actually requires Dominion to pass along these expenses.) Presto: it’s no longer earning too much, owes no rebate, and doesn’t have to cut rates.

In return, the ratepayers get the satisfaction of assuming the sunk costs of a new nuclear reactor that will probably never be built, plus whatever more money the utility spends on it going forward. I believe the technical parlance for this is “blank check.”

“But we must have nuclear,” our legislators murmur as they sign our names on the check. Um, why? Nuclear energy today can’t compete economically. Just last year Duke Energy gave up on two nuclear plants it had been building, after billing ratepayers close to a billion dollars in construction costs. (BloombergBusinessweek headlined its article on the subject, “Duke Kills Florida Nuclear Project, Keeps Customers’ Money.”)

Dominion itself understands the wretched economics of nuclear perfectly well; its parent company, Dominion Resources, just closed an existing nuclear plant in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, because it couldn’t produce power cheaply enough to attract customers. And that’s from a plant that’s paid for; energy from new plants is now more expensive than natural gas, wind, and even some solar.

Memo to Democrats: when the cheaper alternative is renewable energy, no self-respecting progressive signs on to nuclear.

The steadily falling price of wind energy, and more recently, solar energy, helps explain why nuclear is on its way out nationwide. The only nuclear plants under construction in the U.S. today are over budget and reliant on billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees.

Memo to Republicans: no self-respecting, Solyndra-bashing conservative signs on to nuclear.

The State Corporation Commission also understands the economic picture, and it has been skeptical of Dominion’s nuclear ambitions. On top of that, there are serious concerns whether a third reactor at North Anna could even get a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the wake of the earthquake that shut the existing units for four months in 2011. (For a good short history of the North Anna reactors, including the fine Dominion paid in 1975 for hiding the existence of the fault line, see this article in the local Fluvanna Review.)

So there’s a pretty good chance that Virginia ratepayers will find themselves following in the path of Duke Energy’s customers, with many hundreds of millions of dollars thrown down a rathole and nothing to show for it.

The elected officials voting for this boondoggle, on the other hand, will have plenty to show for it, unfettered by rules of ethics.

Amid the carnage, some energy bills make progress

This week marks “Crossover” at the General Assembly. Both chambers have to finish up action on their own bills by midnight Tuesday; starting on Wednesday, they can consider only bills passed by the other chamber. If you’re a legislator and your bill doesn’t get acted on by COB Tuesday, you are out of luck for the year.

photo credit: Amadeus

photo credit: Amadeus

Most of the energy and climate bills we’ve been following now lie dead on committee floors, but some have made it through to passage by the whole House or Senate. Now they need to get through the other chamber’s committees and floor votes by March 8, the end of Session. This date is known as Sine Die, Latin for “thank God that’s over with.”

Here’s where we stand at press time:

Investment tax credit-now-grant passes Senate but not House; advocates looking for help to get it through this year. HB 910 (Villanueva) was “continued to 2015” by voice vote in House Finance, essentially killing it for the year due to a failure to find funds in the budget to cover the cost. However, SB 653 (Norment) has passed the Senate, giving proponents a second shot in House Finance and more time to identify funds. Supporters are running a campaign to generate emails to members of the House Finance committee. Follow the link to send an email.

Just for the record, I don’t recall any similar difficulty approving the tens of millions of dollars we throw at coal every year.

Redefining solar panels as pollution control equipment looks to be a done deal. SB 418 (Hanger) and HB 1239 (Hugo) have passed their respective houses. The amendment to the House bill limiting projects to 20 megawatts will likely be added to the Senate bill. The legislation is primarily designed to help third-party owners of solar systems who currently face prohibitive local taxes on “machinery and tools.”

No more HOA bans on solar. SB 222 (Petersen) is expected to pass easily in the House, where it has been referred to Commerce and Labor. The legislation nullifies homeowner bans on solar systems, while retaining associations’ ability to enact “reasonable” restrictions on their placement. Next year perhaps someone will take on the task of explaining to HOAs that restricting solar panels to north-facing roofs is not what we mean by “reasonable.”

5-year banking limits on REC purchases for the RPS expected to become law. SB 498 (McEachin) and HB 822 (Lopez) both passed their houses, so voting in the other house is just a formality before they go to the governor for his signature.

Municipal and multi-family net metering dead for the year. Last week I reported that the House energy subcommittee had killed all the House bills that would expand net metering opportunities for municipalities and multifamily housing communities. Now we have to add the Senate bill, SB 350 (Edwards), to the death toll. Condolences go out to those intrepid industry members and advocates who keep fighting to give Virginians more access to solar, knowing they have about as much chance against Dominion Power as democracy advocates have in North Korea.

Hampton Roads set to get a study of “recurrent flooding”; just don’t call it climate change. SJ3 and HJ16 have passed the Senate and House.

Fracking restrictions for Tidewater Virginia pass Senate. SB 48 (Stuart) will now go to House Commerce and Labor.

HB 207 “science education” bill may die of (press) exposure. Delegate Bell’s bill has been tossed from one House committee to the next like a hot potato, with no one wanting to go on the record voting either for it or against it. The news media have been all over this one, quoting science educators who say it promotes creationism and climate denial. Truth be told, many delegates support it for precisely that reason, but they don’t want to be exposed as troglodytes in the press. The bill is now back in Courts of Justice with pretty much no chance of getting to the floor tomorrow.

Dominion’s rate increase for nuclear clears both House and Senate. You can call it what you want, but in the absence of SB 459 (Stosch) and HB 1059 (Kilgore), we’re told regulators would require Dominion to refund to ratepayers the money it has reportedly been overcharging them, and to decrease rates going forward. These bills let Dominion keep the overage as a way of paying for a nuclear plant that will probably never get built. SB 459 sailed through the Senate. HB 1059 passed through committee and awaits action tomorrow by the full House. Stay tuned to find out if Dominion succeeds in sticking us with half a billion dollars to support Tom Farrell’s nuclear fantasy.

Energy and climate bills get hearings in Richmond

photo credit: Amadeus

photo credit: Amadeus

This week Virginia’s General Assembly took action on a good many of the bills we are following. For a fuller description of the bills and information on how to access the bill language, refer to my previous posts. At the end I’ve also added comments on a few additional bills you may have read about.

Solar panels on their way to being redefined as pollution control equipment. SB 418 (Hanger) passed the Senate. HB 1239 (Hugo) passed a House Finance Subcommittee Thursday and is expected to pass the full committee next week. Following the subcommittee hearing, proponents agreed to add a 20-megawatt limitation on the size of projects that can qualify for the tax-free treatment. Obviously, this project size won’t stop any projects in Virginia, but the amendment satisfied the only opposition the bill had encountered, from the Virginia Municipal League.

HOA bans on solar may soon be a thing of the past. SB 222 (Petersen) passed the Senate unanimously and now moves the House. Petersen added an amendment sought by HOA interests that would preserve solar bans if they were included in the underlying deeds, as opposed to in HOA contracts. As no one knows of any deeds prohibiting solar, this seems to have removed the only opposition to the bill without actually limiting its effectiveness.

Investment tax credit/grant facing headwinds. HB 910 (Villanueva) was heard Friday morning in a 5-member subcommittee of House Finance, which voted to table the bill.  Usually this is fatal to a bill, but advocates who were there say in this case they do expect the bill to come before the full committee on Wednesday, and the tabling is a temporary measure while $10 million is found in the budget to cover the cost. The Senate companion bill, SB 653 (Norment) remains in Senate Finance and has not been heard yet. It has been converted to a $10 million grant in accordance with the committee’s policy to reject most new tax credits but consider grants instead.

Two RPS bills rendered almost meaningless (but they pass!), one killed unceremoniously. Both SB 498 (McEachin) and HB 822 (Lopez) originally would have made modest improvements to Virginia’s sad, toothless, voluntary, RPS. Facing utility opposition, the bills were made even more modest, amended down to consist of nothing more than 5-year “banking” limits on the length of time utilities can hold onto RECs. States with real RPS laws generally have 2-year limits. Virginia currently has no limit at all, which not-just-theoretically allows utilities to stock up on enough pre-world-war II, out-of-state hydro RECs to last through 2025. So any limit at all is an improvement. And the bills seem set to pass both chambers, so you should thank Dominion for its generosity in allowing this to happen.

Meanwhile, HB 1061, Delegate Surovell’s “Made in Virginia” bill, was killed in Thursday’s House energy subcommittee.

Efforts to expand net metering fail in the House, will be heard in Senate Monday. Solar advocates and industry members successfully beat back Dominion Power’s bid to hijack the multi-family net metering provisions of HB 879 (Yost) and HB 906 (Krupicka). Alas, Dominion got its revenge Thursday in the House Commerce & Labor energy subcommittee, where the Republican majority had clearly come prepared to kill the bills. The two bills, plus Delegate Surovell’s solar gardens bill, HB 1158, were tabled with little debate, though with dissenting votes from the subcommittee’s three Democrats.

(We interrupt this blogpost for an observation about the workings of the General Assembly, which you can skip if your interest extends only to the sausage and not the sausage-making. Sitting in the audience of the House energy subcommittee on Thursday, I couldn’t help noticing the three Democrats appeared to be entirely irrelevant. They were seated way off to one side by themselves, and took no part in any of the discussions during the three hours that I was there. Even their dissenting votes were cast by silent little waves of their hands. It is tough to be a Democrat in the House.)

Meanwhile over in the Senate, SB 350 (Edwards) is scheduled to be heard in Commerce & Labor on Monday afternoon. Like the House bills, the Senate bill as drafted addresses both multi-family and municipal net metering.

House energy subcommittee kills effort to add price stability to factors to be considered in new generation. HB 808 (Lopez) was tabled Thursday in the House energy subcommittee.

And don’t go considering the environment, either. HB 363 (Kory) was also killed in the House energy subcommittee Thursday.

On-bill financing effort fails for the year. HB 1001 (Yancey) was continued to 2015 at the request of the patron, a face-saving way to withdraw your bill when you find it really isn’t ready for prime time. The bill faced utility opposition, but also had flaws that the delegate wants to work on. “Continuing” it rather than withdrawing it signals that we can expect another effort next year.

Adding energy and water conservation projects to the powers of local service districts fails. HB 766 (Bulova) was tabled in a subcommittee of the House Counties, Cities and Towns committee.

Crowdfunding bills fail. Both HB 880 and SB 351 failed in committee.

All right, time for some good news.

Bill to impose a new gas plant on AEP fails. My understanding of HB 1224 turned out to be mistaken; AEP did not seek this legislation. Instead the proponent of a new gas plant in AEP territory is the would-be developer, which resorted to legislation when its efforts to sell the utility on its proposal failed. Following a far more spirited and extensive debate than was afforded to far better bills, HB 1224 failed to get a vote to move it out of the House energy subcommittee.

Hampton Roads “recurrent flooding” study passes Senate, moving through House. SJ3 passed the Senate, while HJ16 was reported from House Rules subcommittee with an amendment shrinking the size of the commission doing the study. Still no mention of why recurrent flooding is happening.

Some protections from fracking pass Senate Ag. SB 48 (Stuart) passed the Senate Agriculture committee unanimously. The bill provides some protections for drinking water from impacts related to oil or gas operations proposed in Tidewater Virginia. I haven’t analyzed this bill; for more information, contact the Southern Environmental Law Center, which supports the bill.

Attempts to nullify federal law (said to) fail. I’m told Bob Marshall’s HB 140 and HB 155 both died in a subcommittee of House Privileges and Elections, although the website still shows them in committee. Possibly they simply failed to gain a vote, which is one way bills die.

Saner heads prevail (mostly) on anti-EPA bills. SB 615 (Carrico), the “Carbon Dioxide Emission Control Plan” designed to ensure the continuation of carbon dioxide emissions, was in trouble even before Democrats took control of the Senate. The senator changed the bill to conform it to HB 1261 (Chafin), which called for a study with the same purpose. Under pressure from the governor’s office, the bill was amended to study not just the costs to industry and ratepayers of complying with EPA regulations, but also the benefits. In Senate Ag Thursday, still facing heavy opposition to the bill from the environmental community, Carrico accepted an amendment from Chap Petersen that took out the worst remaining provision, one that would have restricted the state from proposing any standards more stringent than the EPA required. The bill then passed unanimously. Later in the afternoon, HB 1261 was conformed to the amended language of SB 615 and passed handily. The bill remains weighted towards findings favorable to the fossil fuel industry, but it is hugely better than it was.

But lest we feel progress is being made in Virginia . . .

Dominion’s rate boondoggle shows excellent prospects. Really, you have to admire the way Dominion Power pushes through bills it wants and kills the ones it doesn’t. Dominion is the single biggest contributor to Virginia’s politicians, after the Republican and Democratic parties, and the company gets its money’s worth. But it’s not just the way it kills smart energy policies that impresses.

Take HB 1059 (Kilgore), which would allow—nay, require!—Dominion to begin charging customers for $570 million it has spent towards a new nuclear plant, plus a couple million towards offshore wind, money it would ordinarily recover only when the projects are built.

Stephen Haner, a lobbyist for Newport News Shipbuilding, delivered a valiant and spirited defense of ratepayers in opposing the bill during the meeting of Thursday’s House subcommittee on energy. The real reason for the bill, he explained, is to prevent Dominion from having to give its customers hundreds of millions of dollars in rebates as a result of having earned too much money these past two years. Two years of over-earning would also lead to a reduction in rates for consumers going forward, threatening the bottom line still further. Dominion has figured out it can avoid that result by adding the money spent on nuclear to the balance sheet, thereby canceling out that pesky excess revenue and avoiding a rate decrease. For more on this, see the article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Separate bills in the Senate–one for nuclear, one for wind—also empower the boondoggle. SB 643, the offshore wind bill, remains in Senate Commerce and Labor and is not on the docket yet. But the nuclear bill, SB 459, has already passed the Senate unanimously, a testament to Dominion’s charm if there ever was one. In addition to requiring our utility monopoly to charge us for its costs in planning and developing a new nuclear facility, it states as a matter of law that this development is in the public interest. Really, guys? How do you think the public would vote?

Science “education.” Last, I bring you a dispatch from guest blogger Seth Heald, who has been following Delegate Dickie Bell’s anti-science bill. Seth attended the House education subcommittee on Thursday. He reports:

HB 207 science education bill referred to Courts Committee. The bill purports to encourage open discussion and “critical thinking” as to purported “scientific controversies.” Last week the Hampton Daily Press and Washington Post nicely described the anti-science creationist and climate-denial history of the bill’s statutory language here and here. More detail is on the National Center for Science Education website. The bill came before the House Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education on January 30, where Rita Dunaway of the Virginia Christian Alliance was the sole member of the public speaking in favor of it. Ten or so people spoke in opposition to the bill, including representatives of teacher and education groups, the Sierra Club, and the Jewish Community Relations Council. At week’s end WRIC TV in Richmond reported that the bill’s sponsor, Delegate Dickie Bell, said he introduced HB 207 after being “approached by” the Virginia Christian Alliance. The subcommittee approved Delegate Peter Farrell’s motion to refer the bill to the Courts of Justice Committee to consider its constitutionality.  Delegate Bell’s hometown newspaper, The Staunton News Leader, opined in a Feb 1 editorial titled “Bell introduces an unnecessary bill” that HB 207 is “unworthy of legislative attention.” The paper noted that Bell “has been down this road before, sponsoring other controversial bills drafted by ultraconservatives.”