By Mel Leonor
State regulators on Tuesday granted Gov. Ralph Northam’s request to extend a moratorium on utility disconnections, which was set to expire Wednesday, until Oct. 5.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications and Advocacy Director
September 25, 2020
Virginia House and Senate Fail to Refund any of the $500 Million Dominion Energy Has Overcharged Virginians
Budget committees ignore Governor’s proposal, House budget allows utility to keep nearly $430 million in overcharges
In response to the budgets released today by the Virginia House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, both of which largely ignore Governor Northam’s proposal to return $320 million of the $502.7 million Dominion Energy overcharged customers from 2017-2019 back to Virginians in the form of refunds and overdue utility bill debt forgiveness, Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore said:
“Dominion Energy is unfortunately exploiting the emergency special session and the current crisis for its own economic benefit. Working with traditional allies in the legislature, the monopoly has inserted budget language that allows it to withhold nearly $430 million owed to Virginians. While Virginians should receive all $502.7 million that Dominion overcharged them, supporting the Governor’s solution was the clear right choice: return $320 million to Virginians through direct refunds and debt forgiveness using just a portion of the half a billion that Dominion Energy already overcharged customers since 2017. It’s not too late for the General Assembly to adopt the Governor’s initiative and honor the purpose of this special legislative session — to help Virginians struggling under the weight of two unprecedented crises.”
In its last extension of the utility disconnection moratorium, the SCC warned that “unless the General Assembly explicitly directs that a utility’s own shareholders must bear the cost of unpaid bills, those costs will almost certainly be shifted to other paying customers.” Shareholders are not responsible for covering the overdue utility bill debt in the proposal from both chambers of the General Assembly.
Unlike the budget language proposed by Governor Northam, the language from both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly does not require Dominion Energy to provide refunds to all residential, commercial, and industrial customers. And while both the House and Senate budgets direct Dominion to provide some measure of debt forgiveness, the House language falls far short of the Senate version. The House only directs Dominion to forgive the debt of accounts 60 days or more in arrearages through August 31st, compared with the Senate’s debt forgiveness of accounts 30 days or more in arrearages through September 30th.
By Mel Leonor
State regulators on Tuesday granted Gov. Ralph Northam’s request to extend a moratorium on utility disconnections, which was set to expire Wednesday, until Oct. 5.
Thousands of Virginians face possible disconnection when the moratorium expires, in large part due to the economic pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of June 30, Virginians owed more than $184 million in past-due utility bills, including electric, water and gas.
State lawmakers are weighing legislation to address the issue, namely a bill to secure 12-month payment plans for indebted customers, and budget language backed by the Northam administration to extend the moratorium and force Dominion Energy to use overearnings to help cushion some customers.
Northam announced the request during a news conference on Tuesday, during which he highlighted Virginia’s progress in containing the spread of the virus after a summer spike in Hampton Roads that has since abated.
“Since we first imposed the moratorium on March 16, 2020, we have warned repeatedly that this moratorium is not sustainable indefinitely,” the SCC said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The mounting costs of unpaid bills must eventually be paid, either by the customers in arrears or by other customers who themselves may be struggling to pay their bills. Unless the General Assembly explicitly directs that a utility’s own shareholders must bear the cost of unpaid bills, those costs will almost certainly be shifted to other paying customers.”
On Tuesday, the Senate advanced legislation introduced by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, that would allow customers 12 months to pay down their debt, and would compel the SCC to issue a report to lawmakers outlining the full extent of utility debt in the state.
The Virginia Poverty Law Center, which has been working on the issue, has warned of a disconnection crisis once the current moratorium ends — whenever that happens.
“At the end of the day, the moratorium will end, and we have to understand what happens next. How can people and utilities get back to normal after the moratoriums are over?” said Dana Wiggins of the Virginia Poverty Law Center in an interview last month. “We wanted there to be at least more wiggle room so that people who are paying their bills and trying to catch up on their debt — that their debt payments are something that they can actually pay.”
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wants Dominion Energy to cover unpaid residential electric bills with $320 million that regulators say the company previously overcharged.
The governor is pushing for new budget language requiring the state’s largest electric monopoly to return most of the $503 million that state regulators recently said Dominion had earned above authorized levels in 2017 through 2019. That provision is part of a broader effort by Northam to ban customer disconnections over unpaid utility bills during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Governor Northam is committed to debt relief for the most vulnerable Virginians,” his spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said in a statement. “He is hopeful the legislature will agree to direct a portion of Dominion’s over-earnings to protect these families now, when they need it most.”
Dominion declined to comment.
Under the governor’s plan, which still has to be approved by lawmakers, customers who have bills that are more than 60 days overdue as of Sept. 30 would have them forgiven. Northam’s plan would also set aside money to cover bills that are 90 days past due when he lifts a moratorium on disconnections, presumably sometime next year.
The governor’s proposal would require all utilities in the state to offer repayment plans for unpaid bills that don’t charge interest or late fees.
His proposal for Dominion’s overearnings would be a dramatic departure how the state has traditionally treated the company and could have a significant impact on its bottom line.
Virginia’s regulatory structure has long been viewed as utility-friendly by Wall Street. Dominion has routinely pushed through legislation that allows it to manage its earnings in a way that limits state regulators’ ability to mandate refunds or rate reductions even if they find that customers paid too much.
The $503 million figure the State Corporation Commission said Dominion overearned is based on preliminary calculations and could change during a formal rate review scheduled for next year.
Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who specializes in utility issues, praised Northam’s proposed change.
“We have a broken regulatory system that has allowed a utility to overcharge customers by a half-billion dollars, at least, in three years. And that same system would give customers little if any of that back, ever,” Cleveland said. “(Northam’s proposal) would really help people.”
Northam also sent a letter Thursday to the Virginia Supreme Court asking to extend a moratorium on eviction proceedings from Sept. 7 to Oct. 1. The governor said the extra time is needed in part understand how the Trump administration’s surprise national moratorium issued earlier this week will be implemented.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications and Advocacy Director firstname.lastname@example.org, 828-817-3328
BREAKING:House Leadership Blocks $400 Million Economic Relief Bill
Bipartisan legislation would return an emergency refund to 2.45 million Dominion Energy customers
August 25, 2020
RICHMOND — The Virginia House of Delegates leadership has failed to schedule a vote on a bill that would provide Virginians with nearly $400 million through direct refunds and debt forgiveness using the $502.7 million that Dominion Energy has overcharged Virginia families and small businesses since 2017. Leadership released the Labor and Commerce Committee’s Wednesday docket with no mention of the bipartisan economic relief bill, House Bill 5088, which more than a quarter of the members of the House of Delegates signed on to co-patron. This failure to act comes less than 24 hours after the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) issued its final extension of a utility disconnection moratorium. House leadership also did not docket a bill (HB5117) that would specifically address utility repayment plans after the moratorium ends.
“The State Corporation Commission could not have been clearer about the General Assembly’s mandate to solve the COVID-19 utility debt crisis during the legislative session this month,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore. “Virginian families and businesses are struggling under the weight of two unprecedented crises and their financial difficulties have been compounded by Dominion Energy’s refusal to refund their money. House leadership’s failure to put the interests of hard-hit Virginians over those of a utility monopoly is deeply disappointing.”
The SCC issued its final utility disconnection moratorium yesterday stating in its order that “this period of time has been sufficient to provide an opportunity for the General Assembly to choose whether to address legislatively the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on utility customers and utilities.” Democratic Delegate Jay Jones (Norfolk) and Republican Delegate Lee Ware (Powhatan) introduced HB 5088 last week after the SCC released a report finding Dominion Energy had overcharged customers by $502.7 million since 2017.
The legislation would provide nearly $400 million of immediate economic relief by:
“Currently, Wednesday’s meeting is the only scheduled convening of the House Labor & Commerce Committee, but there is nothing stopping House Democratic Leadership from taking urgent action on Virginia’s utility debt crisis. We urge Speaker Filler-Corn to do so. Refusing a fair hearing for a bill that would inject nearly $400 million of Virginians’ own money back into the economy in this moment of crisis is unacceptable.” Gilmore said.
By Kate Andrews
Richmond-based Dominion Energy Inc. recorded more than $500 million above authorized earnings levels from 2017 to 2019, according to a State Corporation Commission report released Tuesday.
The report, which was sent to Gov. Ralph Northam and the House and Senate labor and commerce committee chairs, says that the publicly traded Fortune 500 utility earned $300.8 million in 2017 and $277.3 million in 2018 over the state-determined 9.2% return-on-equity base.
In 2019, however, the utility was below the authorized limit, with 8.03%, or $75.4 million less than the ROE base — mainly because of the closure of generation facilities and costs related to coal byproducts management at four facilities.
Dominion’s combined earnings over the limit during the three-year period are $502.7 million, the company reported to the SCC.
Dominion’s return on equity is the allowed profit for its shareholders’ investment in the utility’s equity. Last November, the SCC rejected Dominion’s proposed increase of the return on equity base from 9.2% to 10.75%.
According to the report, a typical residential Dominion customer pays $26.10 (28.81%) more per month now than in 2007, with the average residential monthly electric bill totaling $116.69.
Advocacy group Clean Virginia called Tuesday for legislative reforms to prevent overcharging by the utility. “Virginians — particularly Black and brown households — were already struggling with high energy burdens and rising electricity bills before the COVID-19 crisis and economic fallout,” Executive Director Brennan Gilmore said in the statement. “Lawmakers can easily soften the blow for families and small businesses by requiring Dominion Energy to shoulder its fair share of COVID-related utility debt from the half a billion dollars it has already taken from Virginians and return the rest of it to the people and businesses they overcharged.”
The SCC currently does not have the authority to refund the money to customers or lower base rates to prevent overcharges, Clean Virginia added.
During the regular General Assembly session, the Fair Energy Bills Act introduced by Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, and Del. Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones, D-Norfolk, would have allowed the SCC to review electricity base rates and set profit levels for Dominion, an authority the commission had until 2015. However, a Senate panel killed the bill in March after it cleared the House on a 77-23 vote.
Dominion released its own statement in response to the report: “As always, we will review the SCC’s latest report on earnings, while recognizing that it represents an interim assessment. We are looking forward to next year’s comprehensive review by the SCC of customer rates and our performance, a so-called ‘triennial review’ that will cover the 2017 to 2020 period. That proceeding will present an opportunity for a review of the investments we have made on behalf of our customers. We’re proud of our record and of the changes underway at the company. We have kept rates well below the national and East Coast averages and maintained a strong record of reliability, while building the nation’s leading clean-energy portfolio.”
The SCC will conduct a more comprehensive survey next year, including 2020’s ROE base results. It’s too early to tell yet, but so far in 2020, Dominion has recorded $630.7 million in costs related to closure of three power stations in Chesterfield County and Yorktown in the first quarter of the year and $116.6 million in unpaid electricity bills as of June 30 since the state placed a moratorium on disconnections in March, the SCC reported last week. A spokesman said the utility is ready to extend the moratorium to October if regulators allow it.
According to the report, Dominion would owe 70% of the excess funds to its customers — currently $256.8 million, although the utility would be allowed to subtract $199.9 million invested in the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project and grid transformation work. That leaves approximately $57 million in refundable income, but that number could change by next year’s comprehensive report.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications and Advocacy Director
August 18, 2020
BREAKING: Dominion Energy overcharged Virginians by $502.7 million since 2017
Legislative reform urgently needed during special session to respond to economic crisis and protect Virginia families and small businesses in 2021
Charlottesville — The State Corporation Commission (SCC) found that according to Dominion Energy’s own accounting, the monopoly has overcharged its customers by $502.7 million since 2017 — money collected from customers in excess of the monopoly’s authorized profit level, according to an annual report released today. Unless the General Assembly passes legislative reform during the special session, which begins today, the SCC will not have the full authority to refund this money to customers or lower base rates to prevent overcharges in the future.
“Virginians – particularly Black and Brown households – were already struggling with high energy burdens and rising electricity bills before the COVID-19 crisis and economic fallout. Lawmakers can easily soften the blow for families and small businesses by requiring Dominion Energy to shoulder its fair share of COVID-related utility debt from the half a billion dollars it has already taken from Virginians and return the rest of it to the people and businesses they overcharged,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore.
The report’s findings include:
“The General Assembly must act immediately to protect Virginians, who especially during this economic crisis, simply cannot afford unfairly high electricity bills. Dominion has shown once again that it will employ every accounting trick possible to make the money it owes Virginians disappear,” Gilmore said. “In the face of an unprecedented economic and public health crisis, Virginians need a fair process determining the cost of their electricity bills more than ever. The General Assembly now has a singular chance to right the historic wrong of Dominion’s egregious overcharges and provide immediate relief for Virginians. This cannot wait.”
Dominion has been forced to confront a rapid shift away from carbon-emitting energy assets in its home state of Virginia.
Dominion Energy is replacing its CEO as part of an executive shakeup accompanying both the Virginia utility’s major shift away from natural gas and toward a renewable energy future, and the hefty financial penalty it incurred for its cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project.
Dominion announced Friday that CEO Tom Farrell would step down in October and be replaced by Robert Blue, now executive vice president and co-chief operating officer. Farrell will continue to serve as executive chair and chairman of the board of directors, while current co-COO Diane Leopold will serve as the sole COO.
The executive shifts were announced on the same day that Dominion reported a second-quarter 2020 GAAP unaudited net loss of $1.2 billion, or $1.41 per share, compared to a gain of $54 million or 5 cents per share for the same quarter in 2019. The loss was largely driven by a $2.8 billion charge related to its cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project earlier this month.
On a non-GAAP basis excluding those one-time charges, Dominion reported second-quarter operating earnings of $706 million, or 82 cents per share, compared to operating earnings of $619 million, or 77 cents per share, for the same quarter last year.
Dominion and partner Duke Energy canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline earlier this month, citing costs that have increased from an initial estimate of $5 billion to as much as $8 billion, as well as legal challenges from landowners and environmental groups. On the same day, Dominion announced it was selling its multistate natural-gas pipeline and storage business to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway for about $9.7 billion.
Dominion has been forced to confront a rapid shift away from carbon-emitting energy assets in its home state of Virginia under the state’s recently implemented Clean Economy Act, which calls for Dominion to achieve carbon-free energy by 2045. Its primary utility, Dominion Virginia, has asked state regulators to approve a long-range plan that would invest about $55 billion over the next 15 years to build nearly 16 gigawatts of solar, more than 5 gigawatts of offshore wind and 2.7 gigawatts of energy storage, as well as gas distribution upgrades and renewable natural gas.
Dominion has set its own goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 across its portfolio, part of a trend among U.S. utilities that now includes Southern Company, Duke Energy, Arizona Public Service, NRG, PSEG, Xcel Energy, Consumers Energy and Alliant Energy.
The sale of its natural-gas pipeline business will leave Dominion with up to 90 percent of its future operating earnings coming from regulated electric and natural-gas utilities serving about 7 million customers in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming.
Beyond its utility-scale renewable energy goals, Dominion won approval this month from the Virginia State Corporation Commission to roll out its renewable energy tariff offering large customers the option of 100 percent clean energy, Farrell said. The plan has faced opposition from competitive electricity providers and large customers such as Walmart that fear it will undercut alternative arrangements to procure clean power.
Dominion’s natural-gas utilities are also investing in emissions reduction work expected to reduce methane leakage from their operations by 65 percent by 2030 and 85 percent by 2040, Farrell said. But the Atlantic Coast Pipeline cancellation does mean that natural-gas demand from its Southeast utilities and for replacing retiring coal-fired power plants with natural-gas-fired units “will go unmet” in years to come, he added.
Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell’s history of railroading Black communities and glorifying the Confederacy is under new scrutiny after the demise of his controversial pipeline.
By Alexander Kaufman
Summer 2014 was an exciting and nostalgic season for the most powerful unelected man in Virginia.
In May of that year, Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II made his cinematic debut with “Field of Lost Shoes,” a Civil War drama following the victorious Confederate cadets at the Battle of New Market. He had co-written, produced and financed the film. In addition to being a lawyer and the boss of a $62 billion Richmond, Virginia-based utility that serves 6.7 million people in eight states, Farrell is a history buff who said he pulled many of the movie’s lines straight from diaries and speeches of the time. Historians, however, say he added one glaring fiction to his film: depicting the young, white Rebel heroes as would-be abolitionists, who were either apathetic about or opposed to slavery.
Historical criticism aside, Farrell was still riding high on that premiere when, in September, he arrived in a blue suit at the historic state capitol building in Richmond to accept then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas project that Farrell hoped would define his legacy as one of his generation’s great industrialists.
“In the 19th century, we had railroads, the steam engine and the beginning of steel manufacturing. In the 20th century, we had the automobile assembly line, the internet and ― from my perspective, the most important of all ― the electric grid,” Farrell told reporters at the press conference, held on the hottest day in Richmond that year. “In the 21st century, the expansion of our natural gas pipeline network looks to be one of those key infrastructure developments.”
Six years later, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project has been torpedoed by a mix of changing economics, accusations of environmental racism and climate recklessness. The collapse of the pipeline coincides with a national movement against anti-Black racism that has had particular resonance in Virginia, once home to the capital of the Confederacy. Critics of the racial impact of Dominion’s actions under Farrell’s leadership hope that, together with the financial loss from the pipeline project, the current political ferment could finally end his 14-year reign.
Under Farrell, Dominion has become a national symbol of how political corruption and monopoly power can undercut efforts to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. That was worked for Farrell so long as Dominion’s cash could buy it the acquiescence of state legislatures. But now Virginia and many other states are looking to transition to 100% carbon-free electricity, and Dominion’s shareholders are in revolt. In May, nearly 47% of those shareholders voted in favor of a proposal to require an independent board chair, which would have given Farrell ― who currently serves as both chairman and chief executive ― a boss. In early July, Dominion’s stock price plunged more than 11% after the company and its partner, North Carolina-based Duke Energy, announced the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s cancellation. The stock price has yet to fully recover, even as the market rebounds.
Virginia progressives, who cheered the toppling of four Confederate monuments in Richmond in recent weeks, hope Farrell could be the next storied edifice to fall.
“Clearly there’s a need for new leadership and new direction,” said state Del. Sam Rasoul, a Democratic legislator from Roanoke. “Dominion has consistently operated counter to the interests of Virginians and … when you have a CEO who championed a film that essentially glorifies the Confederacy, with all that is going on, it’s clear that there’s a new mindset needed.”
Dominion declined to comment on the record, but internal messages show the company worried this story aimed to “tar” Farrell as part of a coordinated effort to damage the firm. In an on-background phone call, a spokesman pointed to the company’s recent commitments to donate $25 million to historically Black colleges and universities in Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina and South Carolina and to fund $10 million in scholarships for minority students. The spokesman also highlighted a corporate pledge in June to direct $5 million to “social justice” and “community rebuilding efforts.”
“At Dominion Energy, we have a saying that ‘Actions Speak Louder.’ We share the anger of our communities at the unjustified deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd,” Farrell said in a press release announcing the latter commitment. “Our communities are grieving. Words can evoke empathy, compassion and understanding, but actions truly speak louder. So, we are investing in recovery and reconciliation, and in the vital work of overcoming years of debilitating actions, attitudes and abuses of authority that have traumatized our country.”
The company denied a request to interview Farrell.
Opposition from environmental justice groups contributed to the demise of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The proposal would have sent the pipeline through Buckingham County, a rural, mountainous area roughly 90 minutes west of Richmond. Dominion also planned to erect a compressor station in Union Hill, a historically Black community in Northern Virginia that freed slaves founded in the 1800s before the Civil War.
Compressor stations, which use fuel from the pipeline to run a series of gas-compressing engines that keep fuel flowing through the pipeline, emit air pollutants that cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Dominion said the Union Hill permit that the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board had unanimously approved set limits on emissions four to 10 times lower than other recent permits granted in the state. But that still allowed for the release of a cocktail of pollutants, including nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.
For years, Union Hill residents protested and organized groups against the project. The Virginia NAACP condemned Dominion’s plans and urged regulators to halt permitting. In an August 2018 letter, the 15-member state Advisory Council on Environmental Justice urged Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to suspend the permits already granted and conduct a review of potential “civil and human rights violations” and “ensure that predominantly poor, indigenous, brown and/or black communities do not bear an unequal burden of environmental pollutants and life-altering disruptions.”
“We strongly disagree with the Advisory Council’s recommendations,” the company told The Washington Post at the time.
The company then proposed pouring $5.1 million into the Union Hill community, vowing to build a community center and fund an expansion of emergency services. The money proved divisive, which some there said was exactly the point.
“Dominion is an expert at the divide-and-conquer tactic,” Rev. Paul Wilson, the preacher at one of Union Hill’s two historically Black churches and a leading opponent of the pipeline, told NBC News in 2018. “There’s a group of people who are even moving to get me out as pastor. Once you inject money into the conversation, it becomes a wedge.”
When former Vice President Al Gore and anti-poverty activist Rev. William Barber II denounced the compressor station as environmental racism in 2019, Dominion started running Facebook ads featuring video from a high school essay contest on civil rights that it had sponsored.
Meanwhile, the company plowed ahead with plans to build the compressor station ― until a federal court intervened in early 2020, overturning the permit because Dominion had failed to resolve questions about how emissions would affect Union Hill.
It had taken Union Hill activists five years to get redress from the courts.
But a similar fight in a largely white and affluent community played out much differently. Three hours north, in Charles County, Maryland, Dominion spent two years planning another compressor station for the Eastern Market Access project. Then the Mount Vernon Ladies Association intervened, noting that the project would sully the view from President George Washington’s plantation across the Potomac River in Virginia. Four months after the society group joined local environmentalists in opposing the compressor station, Dominion canceled its plans.
It’s difficult to say how Farrell’s personal views have factored into company positions. But critics argue that redevelopment schemes that Farrell supported as a real estate investor, independent of his work at Dominion, have shown a similar disregard for Black history and communities.
In 2017, Farrell led a group of developers pushing a $1.5 billion project to rebuild a 10-block swath of downtown Richmond into a new arena, hotel, offices and luxury apartments. He and his co-investors dubbed the planned development Navy Hill after a Black neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for highways. That clearance demolished landmarks and displaced more than 1,000 families. This time, Farrell lined up the support of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D), who is Black and has recently expedited the removal of Confederate monuments in response to the new protests against racism. Stoney received $10,000 from Dominion during his first year in office and announced in 2018 that he planned to continue accepting donations from the powerful utility.
While the project’s wealthy backers promised some funding, the city planned to largely finance the redevelopment through bond market debt. The proposal swore off tax hikes. But the need to pay off that bond debt threatened to divert funding from city services for decades to come, risking more budget cuts at a moment when municipal deficits were already triggering increased austerity.
Many also feared the project would gentrify a historically Black area of the city and make the neighborhood unaffordable for its longtime residents.
A November 2019 editorial in the Richmond Free Press, a weekly newspaper serving the city’s Black community, savaged the project. The editorial board called the plan “a travesty” that risked “leaving the taxpayers … stuck with the bill for the rising costs of city services.” Any new municipal revenue from the project would end up going toward paying off the new arena, the newspaper concluded.
“With this latest scheme, our community once again winds up as losers,” the editorial stated. “Only Mr. Farrell and friends are benefiting from this project and the charade being perpetrated to pull it off.”
There was a lot of race-baiting from folks who want to maintain a certain kind of racial capitalism in the former capital of the Confederacy.Chelsea Wise, organizer and host of the Richmond radio show “Race Capitol”
Chelsea Wise, an organizer and host of the Richmond politics radio show “Race Capitol,” said she saw members of her family holding up picket signs supporting the project at a key city council hearing. When she confronted them, they said they’d been offered $25 to show support.
“I like to joke that, after that, Thanksgiving was very different,” Wise said.
But the project was no laughing matter, she said. Wise took to calling the Navy Hill proposal “the second wave of the Bartholomew project,” a reference to the displacement of Black families during the 1960s under city planner Harland Bartholomew.
Among Navy Hill supporters, “there was a lot of race-baiting from folks who want to maintain a certain kind of racial capitalism in the former capital of the Confederacy,” Wise said. “This project would hurt Black people.”
The Richmond Free Press suggested the paltry rate at which Farrell’s group compensated picketers was an insult unto itself. “Sadly, it shows how deep poverty and depression is within Richmond’s African-American community that $25 can get people to show up and hold signs at a City Council meeting,” the editorial read.
In February, the Richmond City Council voted for a resolution that effectively killed the project.
“While the council resolution didn’t name him, the development proposal process did not reflect civic needs so much as the interests of one man in particular: Navy Hill’s leader and Dominion Energy’s chief executive, Tom Farrell, who has been arguing for a new Richmond arena for almost a decade,” Richard Meagher, an associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College, wrote in a February op-ed in Style Weekly, Richmond’s alt-weekly newspaper.
Electricity rates are another area where the public interest in Virginia has been increasingly at odds with Farrell’s. In 2007, a hastily passed law proposed and backed by lawmakers who received donations from Dominion restricted the State Corporation Commission’s ability to police the utility rates the company charges. Between 2009 and 2018, the company overcharged Virginians by an average of $234 million per year, according to analysis by the advocacy group Clean Virginia. In 2018 alone, state regulators found that the company overcharged ratepayers by nearly $300 million, which averaged out to an extra $113 per customer for the year.
Dominion also asked to raise the percentage of its revenues it could keep as profit ― a request that regulators rejected last November. Now the company wants to raise rates by as much as $50 a month to help cover the cost of complying with Virginia’s new renewable energy targets.
That would come on top of the financial tsunami ratepayers already face in the months ahead as unemployment in Virginia sits at roughly 10% and workers struggle to make rent amid the coronavirus pandemic. Virginia extended its moratorium on utility service shutoffs for nonpayment until the end of August. Dominion said it will maintain the policy until Oct. 15.
By then, when colder weather risks inflaming the coronavirus infection rate, thousands could lose access to electricity in the state with the seventh-highest average monthly residential electric bill in the country. (Not to mention the other states where Dominion operates. The company said it will apply the same Oct. 15 endpoint to all eight states it serves.)
The risk of losing electricity, advocates say, will fall disproportionately on communities of color. Median-income families in Richmond and Virginia Beach, for example, spent between 3% and 4% of household income on utilities, according to 2013 data from the progressive nonprofit New Virginia Majority. But Black households in the same two cities spent 8% and 10%, respectively. Latino households spent about 6%.
“If you look at what’s actually affordable, paying the current bill plus catching up on arrearage that may have been accumulated during COVID, that may be hard to accommodate,” said Dana Wiggins, director of the Center for Community Outreach and Affordable Clean Energy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “When you take into account that they have been overcharged over a long period of time, it makes it very difficult.”
Dominion, meanwhile, increased its dividend to shareholders in February and then paid them an equivalent sum in June.
Had the nearly $3 billion Dominion spent on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline gone instead toward solar and wind projects, it would have likely lowered the cost of Virginia’s effort to transition to 100% clean energy by 2045.
But Farrell has long maintained that fossil fuels are the past and the future. Until early July, Dominion owned an entire gas transmission and storage subsidiary separate from its utility business. “We’ve come a long way in a relatively short time with renewable energy, but we’re still in the age of fossil fuels, whether we like it or not,” Farrell said in a 2015 speech to regional business leaders. “Seventy-five to eighty percent of it is going to come from fossil fuels, as I said, for many decades to come.”
The election of President Donald Trump, a fossil fuel hardliner, only cemented those views. “We need to acknowledge we are an energy superpower and start acting like it,” Farrell said in a July 2017 lecture to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute. “Instead of trying to keep it all in the ground.”
Thanks to that mindset, Virginia still produces about 63% of its electricity from fossil fuels, compared to 7% from renewables, according to federal figures. The new state rules require that 26% of electricity come from renewables by 2025. In a lone on-the-record statement to HuffPost, a Dominion spokesman said: “We intend to comply with that.”
But climate change’s mounting toll of more disastrous storms, heat waves and flooding show that just meeting that minimum standard is insufficient and “Dominion needs new leadership,” said Harrison Wallace, a community organizer and the Virginia director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a regional grassroots environmental group.
“The leadership of our utility monopoly should at least represent the changing tide in politics and how climate is affecting our planet,” he said.
Farrell’s movie may offer the most damning indication that the executive is out of step with the current moment. The $6 million film ― which received $1 million in public funding via a state filmmaking tax credit ― was widely panned for its historical revisionism.
The script for “Field of Lost Shoes,” which Farrell co-wrote, depicts its Confederate heroes at the Virginia Military Institute as deeply conflicted over slavery.
Historian Jeffrey Evan Brooks complained in a review that a “black character named Old Judge, who runs the VMI bakery, is inserted into the story in order to give the cadets a slave with whom to sympathize when he runs into trouble.” In The Hollywood Reporter, critic Frank Scheck said that the movie “doesn’t exactly score points for objectivity.”
“Amazingly, none of the staunch Southerners seem to hold any negative feelings toward blacks,” Scheck wrote.
At one point, a main character suggests as a given that the newly independent Confederacy must abolish slavery after winning the war. Another insists: “This war is not about slavery. It’s about money. It always is.”
For a white person in the Civil War era to express skepticism about slavery, much less outright support for abolition, would “have been an untenable position in Virginia,” said historian Rev. Benjamin Campbell, author of “Richmond’s Unhealed History,” a book about the city’s failure to confront the oppressive racist policies that shaped its past.
“A white person would have been thrown out of the state,” Campbell said. “A newspaper editor who simply questioned slavery was challenged to a duel in 1848 and killed in Virginia.”
Politically acceptable opinions at the time, he said, ranged from full-throated support of slavery to “advocating the American Colonization Society,” which was an effort to deport freed Black people to Africa and establish a U.S. trading colony there.
Campbell said he knows Farrell, who is in his mid-60s, personally and the Dominion boss is “not a rigid racist.”
“He’s a Virginian of his generation, and he’s a person in moral and emotional transition like all the rest of us,” Campbell said. “But it may not be fast enough.”
An internal text message HuffPost obtained showed what appeared to be public relations employees worrying about a “total of three negative pieces brewing” that will “try to tar us,” including this story, an op-ed due out in a local newspaper criticizing a lawmaker for accepting Dominion contributions, and an investigation in another outlet examining the company’s political donations. The texting thread of five Richmond-area numbers, which appears to have accidentally included this reporter, suggested the publications were “brewing all in rough coordination,” though HuffPost had no prior knowledge of the other two pieces.
Farrell’s role should “certainly be questioned” in the wake of the pipeline project, said Barber, a towering figure of the current civil rights movement.
“A company that would attempt to do all this to communities and put its customers through this kind of fight should be challenged in so many ways,” he said. “Racism is not just about symbolism, it’s about substance.”
By Cynthia Munley
Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has recently raised $1.7 million in political cash, threatening a potential second term run as Virginia governor. McAuliffe wants to waltz back onto Virginia’s political landscape after literally mutilating our region with a miles-long pipeline ridge scar that disfigures our once-intact Blue Ridge Mountains. With his double boondoggle “pipelines-for-Virginia” idea, McAuliffe’s Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines (ACP and MVP) imposed heartbreaking damage to our region and communities still fighting to preserve their safety.
Can Virginia withstand any more McAuliffe wheeling-and-dealing? In an April 1, 2020, interview, McAuliffe boasted a scandal-free, pro-business administration. But under McAuliffe, Charlottesville saw a policing failure in the 2017 white nationalist rally and the state gave $1.4 million to a no-show Chinese company. Then, there are McAuliffe’s pipelines.
ACP’s cancellation validates opponents’ argument that these pipelines are unneeded. Dominion immediately endorsed the Clean Economy Act — demonstrating that stopping pipelines frees clean energy investment. Even the Dominion and Duke builders decided that ACP was an expensive dud. McAuliffe flippantly dismissed the ACP failure as needing to pass regulatory review while expressing no regret for the suffering and damage his pipelines caused by granting them eminent domain for private profit. McAuliffe demonstrates that men with power and no empathy can inflict colossal harms without remorse.
Recently defending Virginia pipelines, McAuliffe said, “You can’t have manufacturing jobs without cheap energy.” The cluelessness of this statement demonstrates that McAuliffe is either uninformed that MVP raises gas rates despite plentiful, cheaper existing sources, or he thinks Virginians don’t notice his bait-and-switch pipeline rip-offs. Business does not thrive on increased energy costs for bogus infrastructure. Also, MVP’s 139 granted variances mean the project is significantly altered from the one originally permitted, consuming more land than originally proposed, including around 6,000 acres of prime farmland.
McAuliffe’s pay-to-play schemes with campaign contributors Dominion Energy and MVP are as shameful as the epic damage they inflict. McAuliffe’s deals absolved industry from all damages for a paltry $58 million for ACP and $27.5 million for MVP for water and mountain resources and $2.5 million for MVP damage to historic resources. MVP is a textbook boondoggle: “wasteful or pointless activity that gives the appearance of having value.” This is not governing, but exploitation of the Virginians who elected him. Virginia would do better electing a candidate free from Dominion Energy’s money.
McAuliffe offered up Virginia’s waters as prey for MVP — which routed around citizen rights with state and federal agency complicity. Virginia’s own water quality standards demand clean waters where pollution may not interfere directly or indirectly with Virginians’ rightful use for swimming, boating, fishing or enjoyment of the beauty of these natural places. Our federal rights under the Clean Water and the Endangered Species acts guarantee protection of headwaters as “critical to the health of … downstream communities.” In our region of springs and pristine waters (including Bent Mountain’s Tier 3 and trout stream upland Roanoke River headwaters), protection has been delayed or ignored by zombie federal agencies.
The sometimes mud-filled Roanoke River and countless streams lawlessly choked with MVP construction sediment deny all these rights and may have made the Roanoke Logperch extinct after an orchestrated regional decades-long comeback.
A 2015 Key-Log Economics study estimated the total cost to an eight-county region in the Virginias at around $8.9 billion, including $119.1 to $130.8 million yearly post-construction loss in land cover, property tax revenues and dampened economic growth. On every front, the MVP harms have grown from these initial estimates. Despite an unrelenting opposition to protect Virginia’s resources, MVP exploited unjust “tolling orders” to prematurely and recklessly permit and construct MVP while the DEQ, through inaction, helped MVP bulldoze Virginians’ rights to property, clean water and natural heritage.
“Clean Virginia was founded to combat corrupt and undue utility monopoly influence in Virginia’s energy sector. As an essential part of that mission, we provide no-strings-attached funding to any member of the General Assembly, irrespective of party or politics, who has a principled stance against taking contributions from and owning stock in the utility monopolies they regulate. As Senator Chase holds this position, Clean Virginia contributed to her State Senate candidacy for the past two years. However,her divisive and dangerous response to the nationwide calls for racial justice is simply unacceptable and in direct opposition to Clean Virginia’s values. Clean Virginia unequivocally condemns her rhetoric and actions in support of white supremacy. In response to these actions, which followed our 2020 General Assembly giving cycle, we will no longer contribute to Senator Chase’s candidacy for any office, including Senator or Governor. Indeed, if we had been more attuned to her statements made during this year’s General Assembly session we would not have made a standard annual contribution. ”
– Brennan Gilmore, Clean Virginia Executive Director
Clean Virginia Fund, Clean Virginia’s Political Action Committee, operates with a transparent, predictable giving policy for the General Assembly: Clean Virginia Fund will donate $2,500 and $5,000 a year to House Delegate or State Senator candidates or incumbents, respectively, if they refuse contributions from Virginia’s regulated utility monopolies (i.e., Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company) and their employed registered lobbyists and do not own stock in those corporations. This policy means that we support legislators from both parties and a wide variety of political viewpoints, and often may not agree with these legislators on issues beyond the scope of having a principled stance against accepting money from the utilities they regulate.