Prince William Times: August 2, 2019

‘Clean Virginia’ backs candidates ditching Dominion

By Daniel Berti, Prince William Times

Dominion Energy is a major source of campaign cash for Virginia’s state lawmakers. But nine Democratic legislators and candidates from Prince William County who are refusing the utility’s donations are getting a boost from an environmental advocacy group for just that reason.

Clean Virginia, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Charlottesville, recently released a list of endorsements and announced plans to invest $1 million in Virginia’s elections for state offices in November.

The group is backing seven local Democratic incumbents — Sen. Jeremy McPike (29th), Del. Haya Ayala (51st ), Del. John Bell (87th ), Del. Lee Carter (50th), Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (2nd ), Del. Elizabeth Guzman (31st ) and Del. Danica Roem (13th ) — as well as Democratic challengers Dan Helmer, who is running against Del. Tim Hugo, R-40th, and Qasim Rashid, who is opposing state Sen. Richard Stuart, R-28th.

Many of the endorsed legislators have already received hefty campaign donations from Clean Virginia’s PAC, the Clean Virginia Fund, and from the group’s chairman and founder Michael Bills. The PAC and Bills have contributed $130,000 to Prince William lawmakers this year, according to Virginia Public Access Project.

Bills is the former chief investment officer of the University of Virginia’s endowment and founder and chief investment officer of Bluestem Asset Management, LLC. Bills was vice president of Goldman Sachs from 1981 to 1986.

Bell has received the most money from Clean Virginia of any Prince William politician, taking a combined $55,000 from the Clean Virginia Fund and Michael Bills in 2019. Bell is leaving his House seat to run for the 13th District state Senate seat, a post currently held by retiring Republican Sen. Dick Black.

In a statement, Clean Virginia said their endorsements are based on candidates’ commitments to clean energy and their refusal to accept campaign cash from energy monopolies like Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. The organization has accused Dominion of using its deep pockets to influence policy decisions made by the state legislature and of overcharging Dominion customers.

“Virginians are ready to elect candidates who truly represent their communities and the future of Virginia,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore. “Clean Virginia is thrilled to endorse 61 candidates who have demonstrated a commitment to a functional and fair democracy, 21st-century energy policy and a check on the powerful utility giants in Virginia who have stymied progress on both.”

Dominion has denied the accusations made by Clean Virginia, and pushed back on their claims that the utility has slowed renewable energy advances in the state.

“We’re focused on clean, affordable, reliable energy for Virginians. That doesn’t appear to be the focus of hedge-fund billionaire Michael Bills and his dark money alliance with failed 2013 gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli,” said Dominion spokesperson Rayhan Daudani.

Cuccinelli, a Republican, is a former Virginia attorney general and is part of a libertarian group called FreedomWorks that recently joined forces with eight organizations, including Clean Virginia, to form the Virginia Energy Reform Coalition. The group is calling for reforms to change the state’s current regulation of monopoly electric utilities and aims to create a competitive retail market they say will lead to “greater consumer choice, reduced energy bills, and higher levels of innovation.”

Clean Virginia has also pointed to the rising cost of utility bills in the region as a reason to support candidates who refuse campaign money from electric utilities, saying the state’s utilities had successfully lobbied for legislation that enables them to overcharge ratepayers. Clean Virginia says the state’s residential customers pay the 11th highest electric bills in the country.

The State Corporation Commission reported that Dominion’s average customer bill had increased from $90.59 in 2007 to $115 in 2018, while Appalachian Power’s average residential bill had increased from $66.61 in 2007 to $115.62 in 2018.

Fact-checking website Politifact said Clean Virginia’s claim that Virginians pay the 11th highest electric bills in the nation was only partly true. While Virginia residents did have the 11th highest electric bills in the nation, it was not because of high rates but because Virginia residents use more electricity than residents in most other states, Politifact said.

Dominion is the largest electric utility in Virginia, serving 2.2 million residential customers and more than 250,000 commercial and industrial customers. The company is also one of state’s largest corporate campaign donors, contributing $368,000 to state lawmakers and political campaigns in 2018, according to VPAP.

Coal ash, climate change

Several lawmakers representing Prince William County who received Clean Virginia’s endorsement said they are refusing campaign donations from the state’s largest electric utilities because the utilities engaged in activities that were harmful to the environment and hadn’t done enough to address the impact of climate change.

“Climate change is the largest non-military threat our country faces, and you can see the effects of it here in your own backyard. That’s why I refuse to take any campaign contributions from big electric company monopolies, and I have voted to make them accountable for their coal-ash runoff. It is environmentally and morally the right thing to do,” Ayala said.

In the last 15 years, Dominion and Appalachian Power, the state’s second largest electric utility, have shifted away from coal in favor of natural gas energy production — a cleaner fossil fuel alternative that emits less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Both utilities are making efforts to increase the amount energy produced by renewable resources like solar, biomass and wind. Dominion reported that 7% of its total energy sales in Virginia came from renewable energy sources in 2017; the company is aiming to boost that number to 15% by 2025.

But Dominion has been dogged by its reluctance to clean up hazardous coal ash buried at its power plants across the Commonwealth.

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2019 that requires Dominion to excavate and clean up 27 million cubic yards of coal ash it currently stores in mostly unlined pits at four power plants in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, including about 4 million cubic yards of toxic ash at Possum Point in Prince William County.

Foy said Dominion’s lobbying in Richmond had dissuaded her from accepting campaign donations from the state’s electric utilities. Foy was a sponsor of HB 2105, which ordered Dominion to clean up its coal ash landfills.

“From the very beginning of my campaign in 2017, I made the very conscious decision to not accept money from Dominion,” Foy said. “I took issue with the fact that they’re one of the only entities in the Commonwealth of Virginia that actually writes its own legislation.”

Helmer, a Democrat challenging Hugo, also said he wouldn’t accept campaign contributions from corporations, including the state’s electric utilities. Helmer raised $290,878 from individual donors between January 2018 and June 2019, more than any other House of Delegates candidate during the same period.

“Polluters who are overcharging Virginians like Dominion Energy are putting our climate at risk and ripping off people in our community. I’m proud not to take their money, and I think most of my constituents would like to see us clean up the corruption in Richmond, not be a part of it,” Helmer said.

Sticking with Dominion

In addition to rewarding candidates who spurn Dominion donations, Clean Virginia encourages Virginians to urge their state lawmakers to do the same. Its website includes a map of the state’s senate and delegate districts and details about how much incumbents have received from both Dominion and Appalachian Power.

In Prince William County, the list of lawmakers still accepting such donations includes both Republicans and Democrats.

Hugo, for example, has accepted $71,707 from Dominion since he was first elected in 2002. Since the beginning of the year, Hugo’s campaign took in $5,188 from Dominion, as well as $4,000 in donations from Dominion executives. Hugo has also received $5,000 from Appalachian Power and $5,000 from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives, according to VPAP.

But Hugo says his votes in the General Assembly are influenced solely by his constituents and not by his campaign donors. He also contends Helmer’s plans would increase the cost of electric bills statewide.

“I am proud to have worked with Dominion on a pilot program to bury power lines in Prince William County, and it was at my insistence that a third-party study was conducted last year on potential environmental impact after an oil spill occurred at the substation in Clifton,” Hugo said.

“My opponent is only making this a campaign issue to distract from the fact that he supports a plan that will dramatically increase electric rates for consumers across Virginia.”

Democrats still taking money from state utilities include Del. Luke Torian (52nd) and state Sens. George Barker (39th) and Scott Surovell (36th).

Torian has received $17,250 in campaign contributions from Dominion and $9,500 from Appalachian Power since he was elected in 2009. Surovell has received $5,000 from Appalachian Power and $4,572 from Dominion since being elected state Senator in 2015. Barker has received $19,227 from Dominion and $3,250 from Appalachian Power since being elected in 2007.

Surovell, who is running unopposed this fall, has been a frequent critic of Dominion and pushed the utility for four years to remove its coal ash from unlined pits to either recycle or transfer it to modern, fully-lined landfills. Still, Surovell said he hasn’t joined his fellow Democrats in refusing Dominion donations because he tries to avoid “absolutist stances” on issues and contends the money he’s received from Dominion is minimal.

“I have raised more money from individuals and small donors than any other incumbent legislator in the last 10 years. Dominion’s support is a fraction of what I have received,” he said in an email. “If my constituents think Dominion contributions have affected my vote over the last decade, they can look at my record. I have probably voted against Dominion more often than I have voted in favor of bills they support.”

Torian and Barker declined to respond to requests for comment.