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.

McAuliffe’s bright new energy plan still has that rotten-egg smell

Students protesting the new state motto.

Students protesting the new state motto.

Earlier this week, Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Todd Haymore published an op-ed in the Roanoke Times boasting of the Commonwealth’s achievements on energy. It was a sad reminder that Virginia has trouble moving beyond “all of the above,” a phrase that seems to have become the state motto. But then on Wednesday, the McAuliffe Administration released a cheerful new version of the Virginia Energy Plan that reads like an extended love poem to solar power.

Haymore’s column more accurately reflects this Administration’s approach to energy: a lot of fracked gas, tricked out with bright snippets of solar. But I much prefer the Energy Plan. The entire first third of it is given over to trumpeting Virginia’s progress on developing solar energy. Though the amount of solar installed to date is still tiny, Virginia solar has terrific momentum, and McAuliffe can rightly claim a share of the credit.

The Plan also touches briefly on onshore wind (thanks to a single project from Apex Clean Energy), offshore wind power (nothing to see here, folks, move along), and an array of modest-yet-promising energy efficiency initiatives.

But the Energy Plan has its darker moments, too. If McAuliffe is in love with solar, he is still married to fossil fuels. The Plan continues to promote fracked gas infrastructure like Dominion’s Atlantic Coast pipeline, and insists that flooding the Commonwealth with natural gas is the key to economic prosperity.

Natural gas sneaks into other parts of the Energy Plan as well. The section on alternative fuel vehicles shows a preference for natural gas-fueled vehicles over electric vehicles, bucking the nationwide trend toward EVs. It’s another discouraging indication of just how powerful utility giant Dominion Resources has become in Virginia. Though we think of it as an electric utility, Dominion is a much bigger player in the gas world. You can run an EV on solar, but a natural gas vehicle commits you to fracking.

Locking us into natural gas in all parts of our lives serves Dominion’s purposes very well. But for Virginia, it means considerable pain down the road. With the world finally committed to tackling global warming, our failure to cut carbon now will mean deeper cuts forced on us later.

The Energy Plan does contain a short discussion of the need to fight climate change, but it fails to acknowledge the tension between embracing gas and cutting carbon. The Plan assures us that “Regardless of the outcome of litigation involving the [EPA’s Clean Power Plan], the Governor will work to identify a path toward further reducing Virginia’s carbon emissions and shifting to greater utilization of clean energy to power the Commonwealth economy.” But no hints follow as to how McAuliffe expects to accomplish this while expanding the use of a carbon-emitting resource like natural gas.

We’ve already seen that McAuliffe is capable of holding two contradictory thoughts in his head at the same time. The Governor frequently asserts that climate change is an urgent problem, then in the same breath brags that he persuaded EPA to soften Virginia’s targets under the Clean Power Plan to make compliance easier. He repeats this claim in the Energy Plan, and seems to expect applause.

Knowledgeable observers say EPA softened some initial state targets and tightened others to make the final Clean Power Plan more legally defensible. Regardless, for a man who believes in climate change, McAuliffe’s boast is exasperating. It’s like announcing you pulled off a bank heist when the evidence points to an inside job. Well-wishers can only cringe.

McAuliffe has a little more than a year left in the single term Virginia allows its governors. Here’s hoping he uses it to commit the Commonwealth more firmly to the solar energy he so loves, along with the other essentials of the 21st century energy economy: wind power, battery storage, and energy efficiency. That should make it easier to break with natural gas. Sure, fracked gas looks cheap today, but cheap is not the stuff of legacies.


*On a purely tangential note, Haymore’s column isn’t helped by the editing habits of the Roanoke Times. Like many newspapers these days, the Roanoke Times seems to believe its readers can’t handle full paragraphs. It presents almost all of the Secretary’s short sentences as separate paragraphs, as though insisting that each one should be mulled over individually. The result puts me in mind of the slips of paper inside Chinese fortune cookies, if the fortunes had been written by guys working for energy companies. (That is not, frankly, something I would like to see.)

Virginia, meet Paris. Things will never be the same.

By Tristan Nitot - standblog.org, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41689

By Tristan Nitot – standblog.org, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41689

After Republicans in Virginia’s General Assembly shut down the McAuliffe administration’s work on implementing the EPA Clean Power Plan last winter, Governor McAuliffe decided on an end run. He issued Executive Order 57, directing administration officials to recommend ways to reduce carbon pollution from the state’s power plants. The workgroup led by Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward is holding meetings this fall to gather information and advice.

This puts Ward in something of a pickle. Meeting the climate challenge requires Virginia to commit to a future with less fossil fuel, while McAuliffe is championing Dominion Power’s plans to radically expand fossil fuel investments in the Commonwealth.

Last week the European Union joined the United States, China, India, Canada, Mexico and dozens of other countries in ratifying the Paris climate accord, putting it over the threshold needed for it to take effect. The goal of the accord is to limit the increase in world temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, a level beyond which climate effects are projected to be catastrophic. Given mounting concerns that 2 degrees isn’t sufficiently protective, the 197 signatory nations also agreed to a stretch goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The U.S. is the world’s second highest emitter of CO2 after China, and our average emissions per person are two-and-a-half times that of the Chinese. No other country has contributed more to the problem. American leadership was key to bringing other countries on board, and it will be key to implementing solutions.

A few niggling details remain, like how we are actually going to do this. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a first step, but its scope is narrow. It addresses only carbon emissions from electric generating plants in use as of 2012, not new sources (though states can choose to do that). It doesn’t address emissions outside the electric sector. It also doesn’t address methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure, a climate threat that seriously undercuts the climate benefit of utilities switching from coal to gas. Its goal of reducing electric-sector carbon pollution by 30% by 2030 is nowhere near what’s needed.

To meet its Paris commitment, the U.S. will have to dramatically reduce fossil fuel use in everything from electricity and heating to manufacturing and transportation. The good news is that the technologies to do this exist, and they are getting better and cheaper by the day. The bad news is that even an all-hands-on-deck approach would need time to work, and there are still way too many hands sitting idle in their bunks below deck.

Future federal regulation that goes well beyond the Clean Power Plan is inevitable. Through whatever means—a carbon tax, removal of fossil fuel subsidies, new incentives, or simple mandates—renewable energy has to take over the power sector, with fossil fuels limited to a supporting role before being phased out altogether. Building codes must be dramatically strengthened to minimize energy consumption, and transportation must be electrified so vehicles run on wind and solar, not gasoline or diesel. And all this has to happen starting now.

With the U.S. committed to this path, it makes no sense for any state to pursue a fossil fuel-heavy strategy simply because federal mandates aren’t in place yet. The ratification of the Paris accord means all new fossil fuel investments—drilling machinery, fracking wells, pipelines, generating plants—must be evaluated against the likelihood that they will have to be abandoned well before the end of their useful life.

In Virginia this includes proposed new fracked-gas transmission pipelines; a new natural gas generating station that Dominion Power just received approval to build; as much as 9,000 megawatts more of natural gas generating plants that Dominion wants to build; and at least two new natural gas generating plants proposed by other developers, who would use the new gas pipelines to supply them. Altogether, these projects represent tens of billions of dollars in investments in infrastructure that would have to be shut down and left to decay within a decade or two.

All this could happen without violating the Clean Power Plan, if Virginia takes advantage of a loophole allowing it to exclude new gas plants from its implementation plan. Dominion’s gas plants alone would increase carbon emissions from Virginia by as much as 83%. That won’t get us to Paris.

It seems obvious that these investments would be better channeled into carbon-free renewable energy and reducing energy use through efficiency and building improvements. These are the “no regrets” investments that make sense for human health and economic development reasons anyway. With the Paris accord, the decision has gone from no-regrets to no-brainer.

But Dominion clearly thinks a pipelines-and-gas-plants approach will make more money for its shareholders. Dominion is betting that regulators will allow it to bill customers for the costs of new fossil fuel infrastructure even if it turns out that using it means paying a high carbon tax, or not using it at all. Dominion counts on the prevalence of climate doubt and magical thinking within the Virginia legislature and the staff of the SCC to muffle the wake-up call from Paris.

This is a deeply irresponsible and immoral calculus.

To date, Governor McAuliffe has backed Dominion at every turn. With only a year and a half left in his term, the “jobs governor” wants to lure businesses to Virginia quickly with the promise of cheap natural gas. It’s a strategy that might backfire in the short run, as savvy businesses go to states better preparing for life after Paris. Surely, it will backfire in the long run, when Virginia is left paying off unwanted fossil fuel infrastructure. The Paris accord marks a good point for McAuliffe to change his allegiance.

Indeed, after Paris, nothing will ever be the same. The days of natural gas as a bridge fuel are rapidly ending, and the U.S. has committed itself to breaking from its fossil fuel past. Executive Order 57 offers Virginia an opportunity to map out a carbon-free strategy. Time is short. Allons-y!

Sierra Club scorecard plumbs divisions among Virginia legislators

SC ScorecardBy and large, Virginia Republicans are still locked in a fossil fuel echo chamber, where “all of the above” and “war on coal” guide their votes. Virginia Democrats mostly acknowledge the damage climate change is doing to the commonwealth and around the planet and support a course correction. And regardless of ideology, large majorities from both parties vote for whatever Dominion Power wants.

These are the major takeaways from this year’s legislative session and the 2016 Climate and Energy Scorecard, just released by the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Constituents and clean energy advocates will want to look at not just the raw grades of individual legislators, but also the discussion provided in the report, to understand the dynamics of our General Assembly.

Twenty-eight Democrats earned perfect scores. All but a handful of Republicans earned failing grades. Sierra Club gave extra credit to legislators who introduced bills that advanced clean energy. This included several Republicans highlighted in the scorecard, but their bad votes on other bills dragged down their overall scores.

This is really a shame, since some Republicans have worked hard to advance clean energy legislation. Leesburg Delegate Randy Minchew comes to mind here for his dogged efforts on behalf of distributed solar energy, something you might not guess from his overall grade of D.

Often, it seems, reform-minded Republicans go along with their party’s more retrograde positions where they are pressured to do so by their party leaders, or where the votes are so lopsided that there is nothing to gain from breaking with the majority.

If party leaders have an outsize influence on voting, so too does Dominion Power. In fact, if you want to know who the true champions of the people are, don’t look at party affiliation. Look for the few legislators who will stand up to the most powerful political force in Richmond.

That assumes you can find votes to examine. In the introduction to the Sierra Club scorecard, Legislative Chair Susan Stillman noted with frustration this year’s paucity of recorded votes available to score:

The challenges of producing a fair and even scorecard are growing, as are the opportunities for Virginia citizens to have a clear and accurate picture of their elected representative’s voting record. Transparency in the General Assembly sunk to a new low this year: 95% of the bills defeated in the House of Delegates were done so on an unrecorded vote or no vote at all. This is not business-as-usual: just over a decade ago, nearly every bill that passed through the House received a recorded vote.

An ongoing problem, both for scorecard referees and for clean energy advocates, is that most bills that would advance the cause of renewable energy and energy efficiency never make it out of committee; in the House, the bills are heard in a tiny subcommittee. Not only do votes go unrecorded, but this approach deprives most of our elected representatives of the opportunity to vote on some of the most important energy policy issues facing Virginia.

And then there was this year, in which even the subcommittee members never got a chance to vote. A dozen or so of the most promising clean energy bills were never heard at all, but were sent to a newly-formed interim study subcommittee, ostensibly for the purpose of giving these bills the benefit of greater deliberation. The effect was to kill them quietly for the year.

As Stillman notes, all these unrecorded votes make it hard to know where the vast majority of legislators stand:

Without a recorded vote, the public is deprived of the full measure of his or her elected official’s voting history. And the problem of unrecorded votes is growing worse. This year’s unprecedented rate of unrecorded votes in the House is up from 76% in 2015—a 25% jump in one year. Virginia legislators are killing more bills than ever without accountability for their actions. This practice is wrong, and it’s dangerous for our democracy.

Stillman gives a shout-out to the founding members of the new, bipartisan Transparency Caucus for its efforts to make all votes public and ensure every bill gets a hearing.

These would be modest reforms, but welcome. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, there’s a big, dirty House (and Senate) in Richmond that need cleaning.

Inside the minds of Dominion’s leaders, vacant space where climate thinking should be

Climate activists protest outside Dominion Resources' May shareholder meeting in Columbia, SC. Photo credit Ian Ware, Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Climate activists protest outside Dominion Resources’ May shareholder meeting in Columbia, SC. Photo credit Ian Ware, Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

At Dominion Resources’ annual May meeting, shareholders presented five resolutions designed to improve the company’s assessment of its opportunities and vulnerabilities on climate, renewable energy and nuclear power. The company’s Board opposed the resolutions and fought vigorously to keep them off the shareholder ballot. (All five failed.) Guest blogger Seth Heald attended the meeting and sent this report back.

Two senior Dominion Resources executives—Bob Blue and Thomas F. Farrell, II—gave speeches on consecutive days earlier this month. I’ll report here on what they said, but even more telling is what they failed to say. Neither man mentioned a critical topic for their company and our world: climate change.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes solves the kidnapping of a racehorse by focusing on what didn’t happen. A dog didn’t bark in the night when the crime was committed, suggesting that the perpetrator was friendly with the dog. As The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova, author of How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, describes Holmes’s insight: “pay attention to what isn’t there, not just what is. Absence is just as important and just as telling as presence.”

Here’s the context of the two Dominion speeches. Bob Blue, president of Dominion Resources’ Dominion Virginia Power (DVP) subsidiary, was the luncheon speaker on May 10 before several hundred people in Richmond at the Virginia Chamber of Commerce conference on “Energy, Sustainability & Resiliency.” Tom Farrell, Dominion Resources’ board chairman, president, and CEO, spoke the following day in Columbia, SC, addressing a small audience—many of them Dominion employees and board members—at Dominion Resources’ 107th annual shareholders meeting. (Dominion always draws smaller audiences, and smaller climate protests, when it holds its shareholder meeting away from its Richmond headquarters.) As best I can tell, Bob Blue and I were the only two people present at both events. I took detailed notes.

DVP is Virginia’s largest electric utility. Thanks to its fossil-fuel-fired power plants it’s also the commonwealth’s number one emitter of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide. It’s hard for serious people to think about “energy, sustainability, and resiliency” these days without thinking about how climate change is and will be affecting us and our children. The past year has certainly been filled with near-constant reminders of climate change for anyone paying attention. These include Pope Francis’s encyclical, record warm global-average temperatures, the Paris international climate accord, severe droughts, and severe floods.

So it seems reasonable to expect Blue might have expressed some thoughts on how the climate crisis will be affecting his company and the electric-power industry in the coming decades. It was, after all, a conference on energy, sustainability, and resiliency.

Blue said at the outset that “natural gas is the new default fuel” for electric-power generation. He mentioned his company’s new gas-fired power plants and said, “We expect the big things we build to last 50 years or more.” He alluded to the hits Dominion has taken recently on its environmental record by saying the company had done a lot of things well, “but our weakness is our inability to communicate in simple terms about complex matters.” (Translation: We’re doing everything just right, but folks don’t realize it because they can’t understand complex matters.)

If climate change is a subject Blue has given any thought to lately, he neglected to mention it. To be fair, he did briefly mention the EPA Clean Power Plan, saying he thinks it would cost Virginia between $5 billion and $13 billion. But then he claimed it was too complex and boring to go into in detail. And he also talked a bit about solar and wind power, but there was no reference at all to the underlying climate problem that is the primary reason we need to transition from fossil fuels.

What’s more, Blue brought up solar and wind mostly to justify DVP’s go-slow approach in deploying them. Speaking a few days after the Kentucky Derby, in what he called “Triple Crown season,” Blue said that with solar and wind power, “The earliest horse out of the gate doesn’t always win.” That’s true in horse racing (although sometimes the first horse out does win), but it’s a poor analogy to use when addressing climate change, where greater CO2 emissions today necessitate much sharper reductions later. Thinking about climate change means recognizing the need for early action.

Come to think of it, the horse-out-of-the-gate analogy is more apt for building gas-fired power plants than it is for deploying clean energy. There’s no need to rush to build multiple fossil-fuel plants when we know we have to kick our fossil-fuel habit. In fact, there’s a high likelihood that a rush to build huge new fossil-fuel infrastructure now will leave ratepayers on the hook later, paying for power plants that have to be shut down early for us to reach our future carbon-emission targets. Yet Dominion has certainly been moving with great speed lately to get gas-fired power plants built. There is a sense of urgency at Dominion, but it’s about building more fossil-fuel infrastructure, not addressing climate change.

By not mentioning or acknowledging climate change Blue accomplished at least two objectives that he must think serve his company’s short-term interests. First, he avoided offending the many Republicans in the room, including some state legislators, whose party still cannot bring itself to acknowledge the climate threat. Blue’s climate silence is understandable in that regard, although it hardly reflects moral courage or true business leadership. Problems ignored as unpleasant or “controversial” tend to get worse, not better.

Second, by not mentioning climate change Blue could avoid having to explain how Dominion’s business plan will affect the climate, or Virginia’s ability to transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy in time to help our country avoid catastrophic climate impacts. Stated another way, ignoring climate change allowed Blue to ignore the need to compare his company’s greenhouse-gas-emissions trajectory with what the science tells us must be done to retain a recognizable climate.

Climate silence is a topic of considerable interest to scholars these days. In fact, on the day after Blue’s speech The Washington Post ran an article describing a recent study of climate silence by two Penn State researchers. In his new book Moral Disengagement, renowned Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura explains, “If one ignores … the evidence of the harmful results of one’s conduct, one has few reasons to activate self-censure or any need to change behavioral practices.”

This may help to explain Blue’s silence. When your business model doesn’t square with your conscience, you may prefer not to activate your conscience.

Bandura’s insights also illuminate the lacuna where climate thinking should be in the mind of the Dominion Resources CEO. Farrell’s speech to shareholders in Columbia a day after Blue’s talk was preceded by a short video intended to show Dominion’s good works in South Carolina. I’ve attended the last four Dominion shareholder meetings (two in Richmond, one in Cleveland, and this one in Columbia). The videos about the company’s local charitable and civic involvement are a staple at each meeting, and they’re always well-produced, moving, and interesting.

This year’s video highlighted contributions (financial, in-kind, and services) that Dominion and its employees made to the Red Cross and others in South Carolina last fall, when the state suffered from catastrophic flooding. A news clip in the video from the time of the floods showed an emotional Governor Nikki Haley saying, “This is the heaviest flooding we’ve ever seen.” Another person could be heard saying, “Eastover [SC] lost everything.” Columbia’s mayor said the floods “changed our lives.” A number of scenes of devastation were shown.

Dominion’s employees clearly did great work in helping a stricken region recover, and the company’s donations to the Red Cross are certainly admirable. But there was a sad irony in employing that tragic event to highlight Dominion’s many good works. Did any of the assembled Dominion executives or board members think about climate change as the video rolled? Did they think about the wisdom of their company’s plans to build massive new fossil-fuel infrastructure? Certainly Farrell did not mention climate in his prepared remarks following the video.

When company executives rarely talk publicly about climate change it’s easier for them and their audiences and employees not to think about it. Executives’ public silence on the issue also makes it easier for the legislators with whom executives regularly interact not to think about climate. And if you don’t think about a problem much, you’re unlikely to gain a sense of urgency about having to address it. That’s Albert Bandura’s moral-disengagement theory in a nutshell.

Dominion’s public silence on climate is complemented by its support for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes climate-change disinformation to state legislators. That further promotes inaction on climate. A corporation’s use of front groups to do the corporation’s dirty work behind the scenes is another example of moral disengagement, according to Bandura.

Farrell started his talk by listing what he said are Dominion’s four core values: “safety, ethics, excellence, and one Dominion.” There’s a large and growing body of scholarly research on climate-change ethics, including a number of recent excellent books on the topic suitable for lay readers. But Farrell’s discussion of ethics had no references to the climate. A shareholder resolution on the Dominion proxy ballot this year called on the company to have at least one board member with environmental expertise. Such expertise might include familiarity with the field of climate ethics. But Dominion’s board recommended a “no” vote on the resolution, and it was defeated.

Farrell claimed that Dominion is a leader in environmental stewardship. “We’re a leader, but people don’t recognize it.” He discussed the company’s major expansion in the natural-gas transmission business in recent years, and said the Marcellus shale-gas formation in the East “will provide gas for the balance of this century at least.” He noted the company’s pending acquisition of Utah-based gas company Questar, which will allow the company to expand its gas business across the West.

Farrell took questions from shareholders after his talk. I asked him for his thoughts about climate change, after noting that we’d been through a year of record global temperatures, floods, and the Paris climate accord. He said he didn’t want to talk about the Paris agreement. “I’ll leave that to President Obama and Secretary Kerry. That’s above my pay grade.” Farrell’s pay package last year topped $20 million.

 

Seth Heald is a student in the Johns Hopkins University Master of Science in Energy Policy and Climate program. His article on climate communication and moral disengagement is published in the May-June 2016 issue of the journal Environment, Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. He serves as volunteer chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. 

Virginia legislators named to review clean energy bills

Workers install solar panels at the University of Richmond.

Workers install solar panels at the University of Richmond.

Virginia’s 2016 legislative session began with a host of worthy bills promoting energy efficiency, wind and solar, but ended with almost none of the legislation even having been considered in committee. The Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Commerce and Labor committees instead “carried over” the bulk of the bills, announcing plans for a new subcommittee to study them and make recommendations for 2017.

Members of the subcommittee have now been named. Senator Frank Wagner has tapped Senators Black, Cosgrove, Stuart and Dance to serve. This information is now on the General Assembly website. Delegate Terry Kilgore has named Delegates Ware, Hugo, Ransome, Miller and Keam.

No meeting schedule has been announced, but lobbyists for the utilities and the solar industry trade association, MDV-SEIA, have begun meeting in private to discuss potential compromises. This can’t be called a stakeholder process; the meetings are not open to the public, and they have not invited participation by environmentalists or, with one exception, anyone on the consumer side representing the interests of local government, colleges and universities, churches, eco-friendly businesses or residential customers.

(The exception is a lobbyist for Loudoun County landowner Karen Schaufeld, a newcomer to energy issues who formed a group called Powered by Facts and hired lobbyists to advocate for expanded agricultural net metering and other pro-solar reforms.)

Anything that emerges from these meetings will likely have a significant impact on the subcommittee. Yet, given the importance of this issue to the commonwealth, the subcommittee should ensure it hears from all solar stakeholders. More importantly, committee members should explicitly adopt as their measure of progress a simple test: whether the language of a bill will lead to greater private investment in solar in Virginia. Wagner and Kilgore have said they want to see the growth of solar here, and all of the legislators publicly subscribe to the values of free market competition and consumer choice. But without a guidepost, we are likely to see the utilities bully the solar industry into a “compromise” that shifts the ground a bit but continues to strangle the private market–and leaves us further than ever behind other states.

Who’s who on the committee

All of the legislators named to the study committee are Commerce and Labor committee members, but beyond that, many of these appointments are surprising, as they don’t necessarily reflect demonstrated interest in the subject. It is also disturbing that only one Democrat was named from each side. (Dance is the Senate Democrat, Keam the House Democrat. They are also the only minorities represented.) There is no reason energy efficiency and renewable energy should be partisan issues, but in the past, party affiliation has been the single most powerful predictor of votes on clean energy.

To gage how these legislators approach the issues, I took a look at the Sierra Club’s Climate and Energy Scorecard for 2014 and 2015. Scores for 2016 are not yet available. It is important to note that in the House, most renewable energy legislation has been killed by unrecorded voice votes in the Commerce and Labor subcommittee, preventing the votes from being scored. So the scorecard is only a starting point.

The Senators

Frank Wagner himself earned a D in 2015, with a voting percentage of 60%. This was up from an F in 2014. The Virginia Beach Republican is the only member on this subcommittee to have exhibited a serious interest in energy issues, having shaped many of Virginia’s current policies. Unfortunately, he is closely allied with Dominion Power, voted for tax subsidies for the coal industry, tends to doubt the reality of climate change, and has been sharply critical of the EPA Clean Power Plan. On the plus side, he believes renewable energy should play an important role and was instrumental in launching the state’s bid for offshore wind. He also genuinely welcomes input from the public at meetings he runs.

That makes his committee choices all the more peculiar. Dick Black is better known as a social crusader who lines up with the far right wing of his party, most notably in opposition to abortion, gay rights and gun limits. Most recently, he made headlines by meeting with Syrian president Bashar Assad and urging the U.S. to lift economics sanctions against the Assad regime.

Black is a climate denier of the delusional variety, insisting at an event last August that global temperatures have not risen in 17 years and that no major hurricanes have hit the American mainland in 9 years. (2014 was the hottest year on record until 2015 seized the trophy. Superstorm Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, struck in 2012.)

The forum was an “American for Prosperity grassroots event” (sic). The “crowd of about 18 people” included former Senator Ken Cuccinelli, no slouch himself in the climate denial department. Black compared EPA employees to “Bolshevik communists.” He and Cuccinelli used the event to criticize the Clean Power Plan as “part of a government scheme to send billions in taxpayer funds to ‘wind and solar scams’ and ‘billionaire liberals.’”

He received a grade of F from the Sierra Club in both 2014 and 2015. With a voting percentage of just 14% last year, he had the worst record in the Senate on climate and energy bills. In sum, the appointment of Dick Black to this committee can’t be called an effort to seek out thoughtful voices on the issues.

John Cosgrove is a solid conservative on name-brand issues like guns and abortion, though decidedly lacking Black’s flair for headlines. With a 67% score, he received a grade of D from the Sierra Club in 2015, up from an F in 2014. A review of the bills he has introduced in the last two years showed none related to climate or energy, again raising the question of why he was chosen for this particular subcommittee.

Richard Stuart’s voting record of 50% earned him an F in 2015, down from a C in 2014. However, he earned an award from the Sierra Club in 2014 for introducing a bill to regulate fracking; the bill did not pass. Senator Stuart also received “extra credit” on the 2015 scorecard for introducing the bill that established the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority. In 2016, he also introduced one of the more ambitious renewable energy bills, working with Schaufeld’s Powered by Facts.

Roslyn Dance is the lone Democrat and only woman selected from the Senate. She has consistently voted on the side of clean energy, and was the patron of 2015 legislation raising the size limit on net-metered projects from 500 kW to 1 megawatt. This work earned her an award from the Sierra Club that year.

Dance scored 100% on both the 2014 scorecard (when she was a delegate) and the 2015 scorecard, for a grade of A+ each year. However, she came in for intense criticism in the 2016 session for abstaining on Senator Surovell’s coal ash bill, knowing it would fail in committee without her vote. The bill would have required Dominion Virginia Power to move stored coal ash out of unlined ponds along rivers for disposal in lined facilities away from water sources. Dance’s abstention was widely thought to be a favor to Dominion Power, saving the company from what might have been a nasty fight on the Senate floor.

The Delegates

Terry Kilgore, Chairman of House Commerce and Labor, represents part of rural southwest Virginia, and has close ties to Appalachian Power Company and the coal industry, both of which contribute generously to his campaigns. Bills opposed by utilities have little chance in his committee. In 2015, he earned an F on the energy and climate scorecard, with a 50% score, down from a D (63%) in 2014.

Lee Ware represents a suburban and rural area west of Richmond, stretching from the western side of Chesterfield County. He earned a C (75%) in 2014 and an F (50%) in 2015. In spite of these scores, he has shown an independent, thoughtful approach to energy legislation, and has demonstrated a serious interest in promoting energy efficiency. His bill to change how the State Corporation Commission evaluates utility efficiency programs is one of the pieces of legislation to be considered this summer.

Tim Hugo represents a suburban Northern Virginia district. He earned a D (67%) in 2014, with extra credit for introducing a bill that reclassified solar equipment as “pollution control equipment,” earning it a critical exemption from a local business property tax known as a “machinery and tools” tax. In 2015 his score dropped to an F (56%), in spite of an extra credit bump from introducing the House version of the Solar Development Authority bill.

As Majority Caucus Chair, Hugo’s poor scores reflect the leadership’s pro-coal, anti-regulation platform. He is nonetheless keenly interested in promoting solar energy, at least where he can do so without running into utility opposition. His close ties to Dominion have often meant he led the opposition to pro-solar net metering reforms, keeping them from moving out of the committee.

Margaret Ransone is the only woman named to the House subcommittee. She received an F (57%) in 2015, down from a C (71%) in 2014. She represents counties along the Northern Neck, near Richmond. She is not on the Commerce and Labor energy subcommittee, and has shown no particular interest in the subject. Her website suggests a mix of the ideological (pro-gun, anti-abortion) and the practical (high speed internet for rural areas).

Jackson Miller received an F (44%) in 2015, down from a D (63%) in 2014. His district is close to Hugo’s, covering the City of Manassas and part of Prince William County in the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia. Miller is Majority Whip for the House. He has consistently voted against expanding net metering options.

Mark Keam is the only Democrat on the House subcommittee as well as the only ethnic minority (he is Korean). He received an A+ (100%) in 2015, up from an A (88%) in 2014. He has generally supported expanded opportunities for renewable energy.

Battles over climate and coal go unresolved, but Virginians still paying more

Students rally for climate action in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club.

Students rally for climate action in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club.

Virginia’s 2016 legislative session ended last week with a one-day veto session, an ideological battleground where both sides fought lustily but nobody won.

Republicans could not muster the votes to overcome McAuliffe’s veto of legislation extending taxpayer handouts for coal mining companies. Nor could they overcome vetoes of HB 2 and SB 21, bills requiring that any state plan implementing the EPA’s Clean Power Plan be submitted to the General Assembly for approval.

They did, however, succeed in defending a budget item prohibiting the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) from developing a state implementation plan while a federal stay of the Clean Power Plan remains in effect. (For that they needed only a majority; overriding a veto requires a two-thirds super-majority.)

These votes won’t end the skirmishing. The tax credit for companies that mine Virginia coal doesn’t expire until the end of 2016, and Terry Kilgore, Chairman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee and a reliable ally of the coal lobby, has already promised another effort next session to extend the handouts.

As for the Clean Power Plan, the budget maneuver will cause headaches, as intended, but it’s merely a stall tactic. Virginia may end up submitting a clumsier plan than it otherwise would, if it has to scramble to meet the deadline once the stay is lifted. Even that isn’t certain. DEQ has already completed much of the fact-gathering portion of its work, including issuance of a report from the stakeholder group it convened to consider options. And the new fiscal year, when the prohibition kicks in, doesn’t begin until July 1. A lot of work could get done in two months.

Moreover, Republicans seem to have a losing hand here, even if they block DEQ from completing its work. If the Clean Power Plan survives attack in the courts and Virginia doesn’t submit a plan, EPA will write one for us. On the other hand, if the Clean Power Plan fails judicial scrutiny, EPA will have to rewrite it in a way that might be even worse for coal.[1]

But the Republican attacks on the Clean Power Plan have never been about protecting our ability to plan our own energy future—or for that matter, about protecting ratepayers. Recall that a year ago the General Assembly passed Dominion Power’s SB 1349, with its so-called “rate freeze,” on the theory that the Clean Power Plan will cost so much money that electric rates needed to be frozen between now and the time the plan actually kicks in, and regulators forbidden from scrutinizing utilities’ books in the meantime.

I know: that makes no sense. But don’t ask me for a better explanation; the rationale never stood up to scrutiny. And Republicans weren’t the only ones supporting this peculiar legislation. Once the original anti-Clean Power Plan elements were stripped out, plenty of Democrats got on board to prove their fealty to Dominion.

We have since learned two things about SB 1349 and one thing about the Clean Power Plan:

  • According to one State Corporation Commission judge, SB 1349 will cost Virginia ratepayers a billion dollars in overpayments to Dominion.
  • Dominion Power customers are about to see their rates go up regardless of the “freeze,” as a result of Dominion getting approval to build a new gas-fired power plant;
  • The final Clean Power Plan requires almost nothing from Virginia, and compliance might even save us money.

Now that we know all this, wouldn’t you expect to hear legislators clamoring for the repeal of the faux rate freeze?

Cock an ear. What do you hear?

Crickets.

To be sure, many Republicans who pushed for SB 1349 were more interested in the threat the Clean Power Plan posed to the coal industry. Their support for the coal tax subsidies shows Republicans have no qualms about charging taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually to help coal companies. Perhaps when you’re in the business of giving away other people’s money, another billion dollars doesn’t seem like a stretch.

Still, if concern for the people of coal country were really at work, we might have expected success for McAuliffe’s budget amendment that put one million dollars into funding for solar projects, with priority for those in Southwest Virginia. Compared to the coal subsidies, admittedly, this isn’t much. In NoVa, a million dollars is one high-end home, green features extra. Spread around the coalfields, though, it could have powered up to a hundred homes with solar. Maybe the symbolism was too hard to take. In any case, Republicans scuttled the funding.

Rhetoric triumphed over substance in other ways this session, too. The General Assembly voted to establish a Shoreline Resiliency Fund, but failed to fund it. Clean energy bills from both sides of the aisle fizzled; with few exceptions, those that weren’t killed outright were sent to a newly-announced subcommittee conceived as a dumping ground for solar bills. No meeting schedule has yet been announced for this subcommittee.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis and the pressing need to develop our clean energy sector, this year’s stalemate feels particularly frustrating. We should all ask for our money back.


[1] Sure, there’s a third possibility: the EPA plan could be withdrawn under a President Trump. But if that’s our future, then defending the Clean Power Plan could be the least of our worries. Hoo-boy. Best not to think about it.