Over the past few days the Richmond Times-Dispatch has run a three-part special report detailing Dominion Energy’s grip on the Virginia General Assembly and the company’s abuse of that power to enrich itself at the expense of its captive customers. Journalists Robert Zullo and Michael Martz examine how Dominion’s use of business and personal connections, campaign contributions and lobbying led to a series of laws that enriched the company and eroded the State Corporation Commission’s regulatory authority.
And Dominion still gets off too easy.
But before we get into that, first let me praise the RTD for even running this series. As recently as a few years ago, the paper assiduously avoided printing anything critical of Dominion outside the narrow confines of letters to the editor. News articles almost invariably adopted Dominion’s messaging and quoted Dominion spokespersons with no effort at independent verification. A single quote from an environmentalist or other critic, buried deep in the text, represented the only nod towards journalistic balance.
This has changed, as the paper’s remarkable exposé demonstrates. Zullo and Martz are not alone; columnist Jeff Schapiro frequently criticizes Dominion in ways that would never have seen print before. Somehow the RTD’s editors have found their spine.
The authors don’t editorialize. They quote a wide array of insiders and observers, though the absence of voices from the environmental community is striking. The coverage of personalities is sometimes even positive; Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, for example, comes off more as an upstanding citizen than as a master manipulator.
Indeed, many of the critics interviewed for the series pull their punches. Most of those quoted are full participants in the “Virginia Way,” a system in which going along to get along is embedded in the political culture. They are careful when criticizing Dominion, unwilling to tar their colleagues and, perhaps, aware they owe their own professional success to the same system that got us into this mess.
Overall, however, Dominion is right to hate the hot white light of journalistic scrutiny. Corporate greed doesn’t look good in print when the readers are its victims, and Dominion’s machinations are recorded here in excruciating detail. They culminate in the passage of 2015’s SB 1349, the law stripping the State Corporation Commission of its authority to review utility base rates and order refunds until 2022.
Dominion positioned its bill as a way to “protect” customers from the costs of complying with the federal Clean Power Plan, but it was not hard to recognize the Clean Power Plan as a politically charged fig leaf. SB 1349 was always about letting Dominion keep excess earnings. The Clean Power Plan, after all, was not scheduled to kick in until 2022, when rates would unfreeze. Meanwhile, as one SCC commissioner estimates, Dominion will keep as much as a billion dollars of money it has not earned.
Yet by concentrating on the money, the RTD misses bigger implications. Dominion’s corruption of our legislative process doesn’t just mean consumers are getting ripped off. It means Dominion has been able to undermine efforts to reduce energy use, protect our electric grid, move to greater use of renewable energy, and free us from dependence on fossil fuels.
Heck, under Dominion’s influence, elected leaders don’t even appreciate why these should be their priorities. Politicians genuinely think building fracked-gas pipelines like the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines will lower energy costs. (In case you missed it, they won’t.) This is the real damage Dominion does, that legislators don’t even know they’ve internalized the utility’s propaganda. This is the exercise of the “third dimension of power,” the hidden type of power described in former UVA professor Vivian Thomson’s recent book Climate of Capitulation.
As a result it doesn’t occur to our elected leaders to ask questions when Dominion promises to reduce carbon emissions while planning to build more fossil fuel generation. (The answer to the question is in the fine print; or if you prefer blunt speech, it’s a lie.)
These leaders acquiesce when Dominion lobbyists urge them to reject mandatory energy efficiency standards on the basis that Virginia has such low-cost electricity (wrong) that we can’t succeed at energy efficiency the way other states do (and anyway the SCC won’t let us, so we shouldn’t even try).
Dominion takes baby steps on renewable energy, and elected officials express their gratitude without noticing how dismally far behind our neighboring states we remain. (How kind of Dominion! Let’s give them some more money!) Democrats used to try to pass renewable energy mandates; they don’t any more. Dominion doesn’t like to be told what to do. So rather than fight and lose, legislators now say they don’t like mandates. That’s a true climate of capitulation.
In short, the people’s representatives pass bills Dominion wants, or reject ones Dominion opposes, and persuade themselves the legislature is in charge.
The RTD cites one especially telling example of this. “Since 1996, Dominion has been [Delegate Ken Plum’s] top political donor, contributing $105,750, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.” Yet, “’I’ve never felt squeezed by them,’ Plum said of the utility’s lobbying corps. ‘I have felt informed by them.’”
That’s what you call good lobbying. The lobbied official never feels squeezed, just informed.
It’s obvious enough that Dominion distributes money to legislators from both parties because it expects to buy influence. Legislators know this, and many acknowledge that it works on their colleagues. As for themselves, however, they are certain they can take money without being influenced. Even Ken Cuccinelli, who advocates for the SCC to regain its authority over Dominion, dismisses the idea of banning campaign contributions from public utilities. (Mind you, he offers no other solutions.)
Voters are rightly more skeptical, as demonstrated by the groundswell of support for Senator Chap Petersen’s proposals to repeal the rate freeze and to bar campaign contributions from regulated public utilities. Dozens of candidates seeking office this year have pledged not to take Dominion money, and according to the group Activate Virginia, 8 incumbents and 46 House candidates have promised to roll back the rate freeze.
In both cases, the question is why so few incumbents have signed on. Perhaps, after reading the RTD’s report, they will understand why they should. What’s at stake goes way beyond money.