Sierra Club takes State Corporation Commission to court over failure to review Atlantic Coast Pipeline deal

Photo credit Chesapeake Climate Action Network

Sierra Club is asking the Supreme Court of Virginia to require the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to review a key deal for shipping capacity on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The SCC has thus far declined to exercise its oversight authority over this arrangement, despite a Sierra Club petition filed last May urging that Virginia’s Affiliates Act requires the Commission’s review in this case. In Sierra Club’s appeal filed yesterday by attorneys with Appalachian Mountain Advocates, the law firm representing it in court, the Club argues that the SCC was wrong to reject its petition and seeks an order reversing the SCC’s decision.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) is being developed by a partnership called Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC, whose largest shareholder – Dominion Energy – is parent company of the public utility Virginia Electric and Power Company, now operating as Dominion Energy Virginia (having changed its name earlier this year from Dominion Virginia Power). Under the arrangement noted above, Dominion Energy Virginia must, through one of its subsidiaries, purchase pipeline capacity on the ACP for a period of 20 years, with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC— the utility’s own corporate affiliate—bringing in tens or even hundreds millions of dollars per year in revenue. What’s more, Dominion is nearly certain to request that Virginia’s ratepayers ultimately foot the bill for this arrangement.

The utility’s deal with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC underpins Dominion Energy’s claim that the ACP has enough customers to justify its construction. Without that arrangement, Dominion and its partners would likely have had trouble getting approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the pipeline.

Under the Virginia Affiliates Act, public utilities like Dominion Energy Virginia are required to submit their “contracts or arrangements” with affiliated companies to the SCC for approval before they can take effect, something the utility failed to do. But on September 19, the SCC rejected Sierra Club’s petition for an order holding that Dominion must comply with the Act and requiring a formal proceeding to determine whether the ACP deal is in the public interest.

Sierra Club and other critics contend that this arrangement is a loser for ratepayers because Dominion Energy Virginia already has all the pipeline capacity it needs: several years ago, it purchased 20 years’ worth of capacity from Transcontinental to service the same power plants that it now claims must receive gas—at a much higher shipping rate—from the ACP. As a result, the utility’s arrangement with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC will very likely increase, not decrease, electricity prices in Virginia. It is hard to imagine that if the SCC were to examine the facts of the deal, as the Affiliates Act requires it do, it would find that this expensive and redundant arrangement is actually in the public interest.

“We have grave concerns that Dominion’s deal for shipping capacity on the ACP will only serve to benefit the company’s bottom line, not the needs of the public,” says Andres Restrepo, a Sierra Club lawyer involved in the matter. “Luckily, the Affiliates Act is crystal clear: arrangements like Dominion’s must be reviewed and approved by the SCC before they can take effect. That’s why we’re confident that the Supreme Court will rule in our favor and require Dominion and its subsidiaries to comply with this critical review requirement.”

According to Restrepo, the Supreme Court will likely solicit briefing on the appeal and hold oral arguments during the first half of 2018. If Sierra Club is successful, Dominion would then have to file its agreement under the Affiliates Act, and the SCC would have to open a case docket and hold a hearing to consider whether the deal is in the public interest.

A ruling by the SCC rejecting Dominion’s plan could have significant ramifications. Namely, it would undermine the basis on which FERC approved construction of the ACP this fall. FERC approval for new pipeline rests on a showing that the pipeline is “needed,” and the Commission has recently found that such need exists where the project proponent has customer contracts for most or all of the pipeline’s capacity. Without valid contracts, this basis for a need determination vanishes.

Sierra Club and other pipeline opponents have asked FERC to reconsider its approval of the ACP, based in part on the question of whether Dominion and its partners have properly shown need. A decision by the SCC rejecting Dominion Energy Virginia’s deal with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC could prompt FERC to reconsider its prior approval.

An SCC ruling could also impact the ACP’s construction timetable and even its economic rationale. How will investors feel about spending $5 billion to build a pipeline through Virginia when most of its Virginia customer base has disappeared?

But first, the SCC must actually review the deal. In its September order rejecting Sierra Club’s petition, the SCC essentially said that it didn’t need to make a determination now; it could wait until Dominion comes to it asking to charge ratepayers for the ACP deal in future proceedings. But the Affiliates Act requires review and approval of inter-affiliate agreements before they take effect. Furthermore, any later proceedings to determine rate impacts would happen only after the pipeline had been built and become operational.

Yes, that’s nuts. Dominion seems to be willing to construct the pipeline now and gamble on SCC’s approval of cost reimbursement further down the road, but the rest of us—Virginia’s ratepayers—shouldn’t be forced into such a gamble. Virginians, who have to suffer the environmental destruction the ACP will cause in addition to likely impacts to their electric rates, deserve to have their needs considered now, just as the law requires, and not later, as Dominion would prefer.

The fact is simple: contrary to its ruling in September, the SCC must review Dominion Energy Virginia’s deal for ACP shipping capacity now to determine whether it is in the public interest. The Affiliates Act requires no less. Here’s hoping Virginia’s Supreme Court holds the SCC to its obligations and mandates a formal review process. After all, better late than never.