Who leads on climate and energy in the General Assembly—and how to get your legislators to up their game

Sierra Club Legislative Chair Susan Stillman presents the Good Government award to Senator Chap Petersen. Photo credit Sierra Club.

Each year the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club issues grades to Virginia legislators for their votes on bills related to energy and climate change. It’s not an easy task, especially in the House, where too many good bills die on unrecorded voice votes in small subcommittees, defying attempts to hold legislators accountable. Other bills become victims of party politics. In spite of this, the scorecard manages to separate the champions from the also-rans, not to mention the boneheads running in the opposite direction. Guest blogger Corrina Beall, Legislative Director for the Virginia Sierra Club, lays it all out for you.

 

By Corrina Beall

The Sierra Club Virginia Chapter 2017 Climate and Energy Scorecard grades the Commonwealth’s state-level elected officials on their votes during the 2017 General Assembly Session on legislation that will have an impact on Virginia’s energy policies and standards to fight climate change. Eighteen of Virginia’s 40 senators and 36 of 100 delegates received a score of 80 percent or better on the 2017 Scorecard, reflected in their A+, A and B grades.

Check out your Senator’s and Delegate’s grades and let them know what you think! Thank them for supporting good environmental policies, or let them know that they need to do better. Scorecard available online, here: http://www.sierraclub.org/virginia/general-assembly-scorecard

As a voter, your elected officials care about your opinions even when you disagree. Regardless of party affiliation, your legislator will be interested to know that passionate environmentalists live in his or her district. Even if you never thought it was possible, you may be able to find some common ground. Talk with your legislator about shared values, and from there, the outcome of a friendly conversation about how we govern is anybody’s guess.

Legislators at all ends of the political spectrum need to hear from environmentalists who live in the districts they represent. The environment isn’t a partisan issue: everyone wants clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and to protect those resources for future generations.

Nine legislators deserve your special thanks this year for their work to protect our environment our air, water or land during the 2017 Legislative Session. Seven will be awarded by are receiving awards from the Virginia Chapter this summer:

  1. Senator Chap Petersen, Good Government Award
  2. Senator Scott Surovell, Water Champion Award
  3. Delegate Mark Keam, Energy Freedom Award
  4. Senator Jennifer Wexton, Energy Freedom Award
  5. Delegate Rip Sullivan, Legislative Leader Award
  6. Senator Jeremy McPike, Environmental Justice Award
  7. Delegate Kaye Kory, Environmental Justice Award

In addition, Senators Amanda Chase and Richard Stuart will be recognized for outstanding contributions on specific bills that help protect Virginia’s water quality from the consequences of our fossil fuel dependency.

Here is the full run-down:

Senator Richard Stuart (R-28) has led on water quality issues in coastal Virginia during his tenure in the Virginia Senate. Since the first commercial oil well was drilled in 1896 in Virginia, it is estimated that seven thousand oil and gas wells have been drilled in the state. Until 1950, there were no permitting or environmental requirements of well operators– and wells no longer in use were not plugged or closed, but simply abandoned. These abandoned wells, and those that are abandoned by insolvent companies, are called “orphan” wells.

According to the latest state review of oil and natural gas environmental regulations, there are at least 130 orphaned wells in Virginia. Orphaned wells that predate regulation often go unnoticed because their locations were never recorded. According to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), the cost of plugging an orphaned well is between $50,000 and $60,000. It took fifteen years for DMME to accumulate sufficient funds to complete a project of plugging seven wells.

Virginia’s orphan well program is funded by fees charged to well operators when they apply for a well site permit. The fee was set at $50 in 1990, and remained stagnant until this General Assembly Session. Sen. Stuart introduced successful legislation Senate Bill 911 that will increase the fee from $50 to $200.

Senator Chap Petersen (D-34) showed remarkable leadership by proposing to repeal a statute enacted in 2015 (the now-infamous SB 1349), which froze electric rates at levels that are designed to allow Dominion and Appalachian Power to over-collect money from customers. Virginians are now paying too much for their electricity because our largest utilities are earning unjustified profits. Petersen’s bill would have unfrozen utility rates, and allowed for base rate reviews for both utilities, ultimately resulting in lower electric bills and possibly a refund to consumers.

Additionally, Petersen sponsored Senate Bill 1593, which would ban political contributions from regulated monopolies. Petersen’s stand brought the issue of money in politics to the forefront, a focus that has spilled over into the gubernatorial race.

Senator Scott Surovell (D-36) introduced successful legislation this year to place a moratorium on coal ash disposal permits until the issue has been studied and information has been provided to the regulating entity, the Department of Environmental Quality. Senate Bill 1398 requires Dominion to assess a range of alternatives for disposing or recycling coal ash, the toxic byproduct of burning coal for electricity.

Despite the dangers associated with coal ash, it remains both ever-present and under-regulated. Coal ash is the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States. Vast quantities of poorly-contained ash sit in numerous pits along many of the Commonwealth’s most prized rivers, including the James, the Clinch, and the Potomac Rivers. In many cases, coal ash disposal sites are located upstream from popular fishing, kayaking, and hunting destinations.

The bill is an important step toward protecting every Virginian’s right to clean water. Senator Amanda Chase (R-11) co-patroned the bill. Chase raised the profile of this issue and rallied support around this measure, and after a weakened version of the bill passed in both chambers, she pushed for the Governor to strengthen the bill by amending it to include a prohibition on future issuance of permits until the studies are submitted to DEQ in December of 2017.

At the Request of the Virginia Distributed Solar Collaborative, Senator Jennifer Wexton (D-33) and Delegate Mark Keam (D-35) introduced companion legislation to establish community-owned renewable energy programs in Virginia with Senate Bill 1208 and House Bill 2112. Community-owned projects are not legal in Virginia, but could provide the option to power homes and businesses with clean energy for renters, apartment and condo dwellers, low-income families, and buildings that have unfavorable characteristics for on-site generation like deep shade.

Development of wind or solar energy that provides power to multiple community members leverages an economy of scale to reduce the price for each individual customer. By owning or leasing the solar or wind system, each community member taking part in the project can reduce his or her utility bills. Although these bills failed, they helped legislators understand what a true “community solar” bill looks like, and have helped set the stage for future efforts.

Delegate Rip Sullivan (D-48) introduced a suite of bills on energy efficiency this year in addition to a bill to establish renewable energy property tax credits in Virginia, HB 1632. Sullivan’s bills include HB 1703 (energy efficiency goals), HB 1636 (adjusting energy efficiency programs’ criteria for approval by the SCC), and HB 1465. Only HB 1465 passed.

House Bill 1465, which will become law in July, requires the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME) to track and report on the state’s progress towards meeting its energy efficiency goal. Virginia has a voluntary goal, set in 2007, of reducing electricity consumption by 10 percent by 2022, and we are only a tenth of the way there. Despite the modesty of our goal, at our current pace we will not attain it. This legislation requires that the Governor, the General Assembly and the Governor’s Executive Committee on Energy Efficiency will receive an annual report on our progress. Sullivan’s bill will provide a tool to hold the Commonwealth accountable for reaching our energy efficiency goal, and increase government transparency.

Senator Jeremy McPike (D-29) and Delegate Kaye Kory (D-38) introduced Senate Bill 1359 and its companion, House Bill 2089, which require every public school board in the state to adopt a plan to test for lead in each school’s drinking water. Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead poisoning, but often do not look sick. Lead in the body can cause brain damage and developmental problems including learning disabilities, impulsive behavior, poor language skills and memory problems. This bill will become law in July.

Dominion Power defends its billion-dollar handout from ratepayers; squashes dissent; asks for more.

DominionLogoA Senate committee quickly killed SB 1095, a bill introduced by Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) that could have brought an early end to a five-year prohibition on regulators’ ability to review Dominion Virginia Power’s earnings and to order refunds where warranted. The prohibition, passed two years ago as part of 2015’s SB 1349 (Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach), will mean as much as a billion dollars in extra cash to the utility—money that would otherwise be returned to customers.

After losing the vote on SB 1095 in Senate Commerce and Labor, Petersen introduced SB 1593, a bill that would have prohibited campaign contributions from public service corporations like Dominion Power. He was forced to withdraw the bill when Senate leaders complained he had filed it late.

Score two for Dominion. But in case you thought the utility giant might choose to lie low for a while, consider another of this year’s bills: HB 2291 (Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City). The legislation allows Dominion to seek approval to charge customers for billions of dollars in nuclear power plant upgrades. Kilgore has collected $162,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion’s parent company over the years, even though he represents an area of the state that is not served by Dominion Virginia Power (meaning it won’t be his constituents paying for his bill). Astoundingly, the bill passed the House of Delegates with only two dissenting votes (cast by Mark Keam, D-Vienna, and Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke).

Obviously, there is a pattern here. It actually began at least as far back as 2014, when another Kilgore-sponsored bill passed allowing Dominion to shift onto its customers several hundred million dollars of nuclear development costs that otherwise would not have been recovered for many years, if ever. The legislation inspired much criticism, but little action.

Taken together, these legislative giveaways add up to enormous sums of money. The 2015 legislation involved as much as a billion dollars in customer payments that exceed the profit margin allowed by the State Corporation Commission, according to an estimate offered by one commissioner. In the absence of SB 1349, Dominion would likely have had to issue refunds, lower rates, or both.

At the time, Dominion claimed that the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would impose huge costs on ratepayers unless the General Assembly acted to stop base rates from rising. Legislators weren’t told the real effect of SB 1349 would be to keep base rates from falling. And meanwhile, customers’ utility bills could continue to rise because base rates make up only a portion of monthly bills.

Petersen’s bill this year took notice of the fact that the Clean Power Plan is now highly unlikely to take effect. SB 1095 would have reinstated the SCC’s authority to review rates if and when the Clean Power Plan was deemed truly dead. This misses the mark only in being way too generous to Dominion. As the SCC has pointed out, the review freeze period will be over before the Clean Power Plan is slated to take effect, so SB 1349 could not possibly protect ratepayers from compliance costs anyway.

SB 1349 is currently being challenged in court as an unconstitutional abrogation of the SCC’s power. Two former Attorneys General, Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Andy Miller, have weighed in on the side of consumers. The current Attorney General, Democrat Mark Herring, was harshly critical of the bill when it was before the General Assembly, but now says he is obligated to defend the law.

SB 1349 passed the General Assembly two years ago amid great confusion about what was in the bill and what it all meant. Legislators padded it out with modest solar-energy and energy-efficiency provisions to make it palatable to skeptical Democrats and ensure it would be signed by Governor McAuliffe.

But this year, legislators have no such excuse. They cannot have missed the torrent of criticism the law inspired, or the point that Dominion won’t spend a dime of its ill-gotten gain on compliance with the Clean Power Plan. It is hard to see the 9-2 vote in Commerce and Labor to kill Petersen’s SB 1095 as anything but a blatant, bipartisan gift to Dominion. (The dissenting votes came from Republicans Dick Black and Stephan Newman.)

Dominion’s corrosive effect on Virginia politics is one of the main threads of a book published last year called Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power. Author Jeff Thomas outlines a whole host of ways in which Virginia politics have become mired in corruption. SB 1349 is Exhibit A.

Now the unearned largesse for Dominion—and the ignominious end to Senator Petersen’s effort to rein in Dominion’s influence—have become an issue in this year’s governor’s race. Republicans Denver Riggleman and Corey Stewart and Democrat Tom Perriello are all taking aim at the connection between Dominion’s campaign spending and the billion-dollar boondoggle it received from SB 1349. If Kilgore’s HB 2291 passes the Senate this month, they will have another example on which to build their case that Dominion’s campaign donations have corrupted Virginia’s legislative process.

Legislators themselves publicly reject the idea of a causal relationship between the steady stream of campaign cash and their votes in favor of the bills, while privately acknowledging the sway Dominion holds over the General Assembly. Indeed, the comfortable fiction that campaign donations don’t affect a politician’s votes is such an insult to voters’ intelligence that the wonder is why it took so many years to become a campaign issue.

Given Wagner and Kilgore’s leadership roles in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, the issue might not seem like obvious fodder for the Republican primary campaign. Of course, Wagner is also running for governor on the Republican ticket, so the assaults of challengers Riggleman and Stewart might simply be tactics designed to undermine the competition. If voters respond, though, we can expect to hear a lot more discussion of government corruption.

In today’s chaotic political environment, Democrats who don’t speak out could find themselves under fire, too. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, the other Democrat running for Governor, has accepted over $97,000 from Dominion since 2008, according to VPAP.org, and so far seems not to have joined the chorus of voices criticizing Dominion’s influence.

The anti-corporate sentiments that fueled Bernie Sanders’ campaign have only intensified with Donald Trump’s embrace of bankers and oil barons. Democratic voters today are less likely than ever to forgive leaders of their own party for cozying up to big corporations. If either Democratic candidate for governor cedes the issue of clean government to the other—or to Republicans—this might be the election in which it matters.