Power Play: Inside the Dominion lobbying blitz that’s going to raise your electric bills
October 13, 2020

This article was produced in partnership with the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter.

When Democrats campaigned for the Virginia legislature last year, they took aim at the state’s largest power broker: Dominion Energy.

The electric utility’s clout was legendary in the state Capitol, where it doled out millions in campaign contributions and employed an army of lobbyists who helped write energy policy for decades. The result was soaring electricity bills and an energy grid heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

Democrats vowed to change that. After winning total control at the state Capitol for the first time in a generation, lawmakers unveiled the Clean Economy Act. They said it would phase out carbon-based energy and lower consumers’ power bills.

In a stark display of role reversal, one of Dominion’s top lobbyists watched from the back of the room as Democratic lawmakers stood alongside environmentalists and clean energy backers to introduce the legislation at a press conference.

But over the next 11 weeks, Dominion fought back and ended up as a winner in a bill intended to diminish its influence. By doubling the size of its lobbying corps and tapping its long-standing relationships with legislative leaders and Gov. Ralph Northam, the utility secured in the Clean Economy Act the right to build its top priority: a massive offshore wind farm set to be the most expensive utility project in Virginia history.

State regulators estimate a typical residential customer will pay nearly $70 more per month for the same amount of electricity by the end of the decade. About 40% of that increase is tied to the new law.

At the behest of Dominion, records show, a senior Northam administration official made last-minute changes to the legislation that increased the wind project’s price tag by an estimated $2.5 billion. The tweaks meant more money for Dominion, because state law guarantees utilities roughly 10% profit on construction projects. Neither the environmental representatives who helped craft the bill nor the state senator who sponsored it said they were aware of the changes until after the legislature passed it.

What happened in those 11 weeks — detailed in emails, internal documents and dozens of interviews conducted by The Richmond Times-Dispatch and ProPublica — offers an inside look at how Dominion wields political influence in Richmond, even as growing ranks of lawmakers denounce its name and refuse its money.

Dominion defended its role in the process, saying that the legislation directly affected its business.

“If the lights go out, people call us. So the No. 1 thing we always bring in any discussion of energy bills is we’re very aware we’ve got responsibility for this — keeping the lights on,” said Bill Murray, Dominion’s head lobbyist. “And that informs sort of everything else that we do.”

He said the utility pressed for the changes to the legislation to lock in the cost of the wind project. That helps offset the risks of building offshore wind, which is more expensive than other forms of energy. The company says it can’t meet the state’s new renewable energy goals without using offshore wind.

Today, Northam and Democratic lawmakers champion the Clean Economy Act as landmark legislation that places Virginia, long among the worst states on clean energy, at the forefront of the fight against climate change. It will also promote construction of solar energy and mandate utilities generate electricity without fossil fuels by 2050.

Nevertheless, if wind costs escalate or the offshore project doesn’t produce the energy expected, Dominion’s customers will still be on the hook.

“There’s no reason that we have to make these policy decisions that say that this regulated monopoly must profit off of all of these other projects,” said Del. Sam Rasoul, a Democrat from the mountain city of Roanoke, who unsuccessfully sought to curb costs in the Clean Economy Act. “I feel as though Dominion is still solidly in control of the legislature.”

Monopoly Rule, Big Bills

Like most public utilities, Dominion has a monopoly on its territory, providing power to two-thirds of customers in Virginia and a small slice of North Carolina. In exchange, the company is required to convince a board of independent state regulators, the State Corporation Commission, that it isn’t overcharging customers. But over the years, Dominion has pushed for and won legislation that undercuts regulators’ authority.

In 2015, Dominion convinced Virginia lawmakers to pass a bill that blocked the SCC from reviewing base electricity rates for the next seven years. (The utility had cited the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, saying it needed “rate stability” from Virginia in the face of expensive federal mandates. The Trump administration has since killed the environmental rule.)

The strategy has resulted in massive profits for Dominion while ratepayers’ bills soar. By law, utilities are entitled to earn about 10% profit on their assets and investments. Anything over that amount is considered “over-earnings,” money that could go back to customers as refunds. According to the SCC, Dominion made more than $500 million in excess earnings between 2017 and 2019.

The preliminary figures, released in a report in August, will be evaluated in a formal review next year. Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani said the company expects to use excess earnings for clean energy investments and assistance for people with unpaid bills during the pandemic.

“The customer is getting benefit back from those dollars,” he said.

Years of excess earnings, however, have driven public anger. Today, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Virginia households pay some of the most expensive electricity bills in the nation. Daudani said Dominion believes electricity rates are a better metric for comparison. The company’s rates are below the national average, he said, but Virginians use more electricity.

The utility’s residential power bills have jumped nearly 29% since 2007, largely due to new construction projects, according to an SCC report released in August.

“We have maintained reliable service, bolstered by our efforts to modernize the electric grid, and we have made record investments in clean energy,” Daudani said. “We are very proud of this record.”

Typically, state regulators would evaluate those projects to determine whether they were necessary. That’s how neighboring states oversee investor-owned utilities, which still earn millions in profit, said Joel Eisen, an energy and environmental law professor at the University of Richmond who has studied public utility regulation in America for 20 years.

But in Virginia, Dominion has routinely pressed the General Assembly to declare its projects “in the public interest,” language designed to force regulatory approval.

In 2007, lawmakers urged the commission to approve the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, a $1.8 billion power plant in Southwest Virginia. They also awarded Dominion a bonus as an incentive to build the plant. Five years later when it started generating power, it was one of the last coal plants to open in the United States.

Today, it isn’t scheduled to operate more than 11% of the time. The plant, however, makes up the largest single generation charge on a customer bill: nearly $4 a month for the typical residential customer. A 2012 state attorney general’s office report showed customers are paying an extra $146 million to Dominion over the project’s lifetime for the bonus that lawmakers approved.

State regulators have questioned the need for some of Dominion’s most expensive projects. SCC officials said in a report in 2018 that the utility has regularly overstated electricity demand in Virginia. Daudani, the Dominion spokesman, said that as a result of that report the company changed the way it predicts demand.

Still, the utility has found ways to continue building and to keep its excess profits. In 2018, amid a brewing revolt over customer costs, Dominion supported a law to allow the company to invest much of the excess earnings in clean energy projects — instead of issuing refunds.

Eisen said he’s “unaware of any comparable provision elsewhere in the nation that allows a utility to take money that a commission would otherwise decide it has to give back to ratepayers and allow the utility to plow that into new projects.”

All of this led to a massive opposition effort.

Beginning in 2018, a wealthy hedge fund investor, Michael Bills, offered financial support to any politician who refused to take campaign donations from Dominion. The response was overwhelming, with Bills shelling out $3 million to candidates and his political action committee, Clean Virginia.

Today, a third of state lawmakers have pledged not to take money from Dominion, its executives or lobbyists. Bills has supplanted the utility and every other person and corporation in Virginia as the state’s top political donor.

He gave Northam $586,000 from 2013 to 2017, more than double Dominion’s contributions to the governor in the past decade.

Bills said in an interview that he has no investments that compete with Dominion. He wants the legislature to allow more competition for clean energy and empower state regulators to stop Dominion from keeping excess profits.

“You can have clean energy and all the advantages of non-carbon producing energy without busting the bank,” Bills said, “and more importantly, busting the poor ratepayers’ backs.”

Dominion’s Friends in the State Senate

Democrats saw the Clean Economy Act as an opportunity to remake Virginia’s energy landscape and help lower power bills. Utilities would have to meet tougher energy efficiency targets and accept more solar and other renewable energy generated by producers other than Dominion.

Among the legislation’s primary authors was Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, a trade association that represents wind and solar developers, energy efficiency companies, and corporate energy buyers like Amazon and Facebook that want to reduce their carbon footprint.

Democrats in the House embraced the bill.

But leaders in the Senate bristled.

The upper house was ruled by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, a longtime Dominion ally from Fairfax County. Elected to the legislature in 1975, the 80-year-old lawmaker drives a purple Jaguar with the license plate “1” because he is Virginia’s senior state senator. A popular conservative radio talk show host calls him “the godfather.”

Dominion is Saslaw’s biggest political supporter. The utility’s PAC has given him $435,508 since 1996, nearly two times more than his second-largest donor, the Virginia Bankers Association, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks money in state politics. And Dominion executives have given Saslaw an additional $48,000.

The utility is also the largest corporate donor to the Senate Democratic Caucus, giving nearly $400,000 in the past 20 years.

In 2019, as the anti-Dominion wave crested, Yasmine Taeb, a lawyer from Northern Virginia, challenged Saslaw in a primary, pledging to get excess Dominion earnings back to customers. She criticized what she called “‘an old Virginia way’ that still runs Richmond” and blasted Saslaw, who she said had “done Dominion’s bidding.” Saslaw has defended his record, saying the utility’s donations don’t influence his decisions. “I haven’t done any more than anybody else has” to help Dominion, he said in an interview.

With talk of a potential upset, Dominion stepped in. Five days before the election, the utility sent a letter to shareholders in his Senate district in the Washington suburbs touting his efforts on company projects.

Saslaw squeaked past Taeb by less than 3 points, his closest race in four decades.

He spent about $1.4 million on the primary, seven times more than Taeb.

Saslaw told environmental leaders that to get any climate bill through the Senate, they’d need agreement from Dominion. In an interview for this story, he said that the state’s largest utility would be directly affected by the measure, so it needed to be a player in the discussions.

“Your best legislation is when everybody involved reaches a compromise,” Saslaw said. “That’s the way the legislature works.”

After getting little out of past legislation backed by Dominion, environmentalists remained enthusiastic.

“We were excited because for the first time we were working from our language,” said Harrison Wallace, then the Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and one of the bill negotiators. “This was our bill, which we are now coming together to defend, and that was exciting.”

In Virginia, where the General Assembly usually convenes for an alternating 45 or 60 days each year, lobbyists have taken on an outsized role in policymaking.

Lawmakers file so many bills during the frantic sessions, rushing from hearing room to hearing room, that they often leave special interests to hammer out the details.

So last January, at Saslaw’s direction, representatives of environmental groups and Dominion began a series of negotiation meetings. The lawmakers who sponsored the bill did not participate in the sessions.

A Conference Room With No View

At first, the environmental and clean energy negotiators tried to meet with Dominion representatives in the cramped state legislative building, even in the room designated for news conferences. But space was scarce.

Dominion offered a solution: The group could use one of the utility’s office towers just a few blocks from the Capitol. Environmentalists were reluctant; they wanted neutral ground and felt moving the talks would give their longtime foe an advantage. But, under pressure to reach an agreement, they relented.

Over the next five weeks, the group often decamped to a conference room that had one window looking out onto a brick wall. Negotiators would spend three- to five-hour chunks, sometimes all day, hashing out details of the legislation. Dominion occasionally bought meals from fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle for the group.

After years of Republican rule, the environmentalists were thrilled to be at the table. But now they faced the consummate political insider.

Bill Murray, Dominion’s top lobbyist and lead negotiator on the legislation, had 29 years of legislative experience, about half with Dominion. He had worked in the administrations of two former governors, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both now U.S. senators. After joining Dominion, Murray was part of the transition teams for the office’s most recent occupants, Terry McAuliffe and Northam.

Many lawmakers, especially those of the older generation, know and trust Murray because they’ve worked with him for years. He has personally given campaign money to more than 30 current lawmakers — a fifth of the General Assembly.

Joining Murray at the table was Katharine Bond, a 21-year veteran of Dominion who was the lobbyist at the environmental groups’ press conference with lawmakers.

Murray gave advice to the environmentalists and told stories about how to get a bill passed in the legislature, said Wallace of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

But he and Bond had a consistent message for the other negotiators: The provisions of the Clean Economy Act as presented were too costly.

The talks dragged on, and environmentalists believed that Dominion was using delay tactics. For instance, the utility initially agreed to annual benchmarks on energy efficiency designed to save customers money but later pared down the program, environmental negotiators said. Daudani, the Dominion spokesman, didn’t directly address the negotiations but noted that state regulators will set new efficiency targets after the program ends.

The change prompted a lobbyist with the Natural Resources Defense Council to leave the negotiations on Jan. 30.

By February, the talks were shaky.

“Legislative negotiations are always complicated and miscommunication can happen, but this occurred too often to be pure coincidence and caused unwarranted delays,” said Harry Godfrey, the executive director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy.

Murray responded in an interview that everything had to be checked “with the people who operate the grid.”

To some in the room, it was as if the legislature had not changed hands.

“In the Public Interest”

The original Clean Economy Act called for offshore wind as part of a mix of clean energy but didn’t include language mandating that Dominion own it. The utility wanted to change that.

After years of investment in coal, natural gas and nuclear power, it had recently expanded into renewable energy.

The utility won a federal lease for the area off the coast of Virginia Beach in 2013, as it considered building an offshore wind farm. Five years later, in 2018, it was pursuing a two-turbine test project. Just as it had done with its previous construction efforts, Dominion successfully pressed the legislature to declare the pilot project “in the public interest.”

Saying the law tied its hands, the SCC approved the project but raised concerns.

The turbines would cost customers $300 million and generate 12 megawatts of electricity, enough to power only 3,000 homes with sustained winds. The cost of the wind energy was 26 times greater than purchasing it from the market and nearly 14 times greater than solar, the commission wrote in its order.

Regulators said that customers would bear almost all of the risk if costs went up or the project flopped.

Now, in early 2020, with the test project still under construction, Dominion pushed to go bigger. It wanted to build a $7.8 billion expansion, which would make its offshore wind operation the largest in the nation. And it saw the Virginia legislature as the vehicle to make it happen.

Offshore wind is largely a new frontier in America. During the legislative session, there was only one offshore wind farm in the United States, made up of five turbines off the coast of Rhode Island. There are 18 projects in the planning stages in other states, according to the American Wind Energy Association. But Virginia Democrats, many of whom campaigned on promises to combat climate change and protect the environment, backed Dominion’s plan.

text highlights 2
Legislators wrote a law in 2018 saying Dominion Energy’s test wind project was “in the public interest,” and they did so again in 2020 for the utility’s much larger offshore wind farm. (Highlights added by ProPublica and The Times-Dispatch)

While environmentalists and Dominion negotiated in the utility’s office tower, the Democratic sponsors of the Clean Economy Act, Del. Rip Sullivan of Fairfax County, and Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, added language that declared the wind farm “in the public interest.”

Another addition to the bill went further. It said the SCC should find certain costs to be “reasonably and prudently incurred.”

The provision meant legislators were directing state regulators to approve a future request from Dominion to recover billions from customers for its offshore wind plan.

While the SCC still makes the final decisions, the “reasonable and prudent” language makes the commission’s hearing more of a formality. The Virginia attorney general’s office warned lawmakers early in the session that the wording takes away a key ratepayer protection.

Such language is not the norm elsewhere, said James Van Nostrand, a utility law professor and director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University who spent 22 years representing investor-owned utilities. Typically, he said, a public utility commission would determine whether a proposed project should move forward. The regulated utility has the burden of proof to show regulators that its proposed costs are reasonable and prudent.

The Clean Economy Act removes that burden, he said, calling it “a big advantage for the utility to have this.”

“The more the legislature weighs in, the more you see what Dominion can do just by its influence over the legislature,” Van Nostrand said in a recent interview. Lawmakers are removing authority “from an agency that has the expertise and has the proceedings that invite the level of rigor and scrutiny that’s going to test that number.”

The lawmakers who sponsored the bill said they largely left the details to Dominion and the environmental groups.

“Other than just generally focusing on ‘What can we do to expand wind,’ I was not involved in the weeds of the language negotiations,” said McClellan, who sponsored the legislation with Sullivan. “Rip and I basically told all of the stakeholders: ‘Negotiate this bill. When you can’t reach agreement, come to us and we’ll be the tiebreaker.’”

Sullivan said in interviews that the language came from “the ongoing collaborative process between lots of stakeholders. And I think I’d be misdescribing the process if I told you that one particular person or one particular entity asked for that specific language. It became part of the ongoing discussions.”

But key environmental negotiators — including Wallace of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Will Cleveland of the Southern Environmental Law Center and Mike Town of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters — said they didn’t write the language or help write it.

Dominion’s Murray and Bond said they didn’t know who wrote it; asked if Dominion’s lawyer wrote it, Murray said the utility’s legal representatives were “involved in discussions about it,” but the company declined to provide more detail.

Sullivan said in interviews that the language came from “the ongoing collaborative process between lots of stakeholders. And I think I’d be misdescribing the process if I told you that one particular person or one particular entity asked for that specific language. It became part of the ongoing discussions.”

But key environmental negotiators — including Wallace of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Will Cleveland of the Southern Environmental Law Center and Mike Town of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters — said they didn’t write the language or help write it.

Dominion’s Murray and Bond said they didn’t know who wrote it; asked if Dominion’s lawyer wrote it, Murray said the utility’s legal representatives were “involved in discussions about it,” but the company declined to provide more detail.

“Is it not the case that the reason we have not had a rate review … is because of two bills that you all helped draft and asked for?” he asked during a House subcommittee hearing.

The bill easily passed the House.

Then, it went to the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. At the helm: Saslaw, the state’s most-senior senator.

The sponsors made their case and a long line of supporters formed to speak.

“This is about protecting the consumer, protecting the ratepayer,” said Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk. “That money belongs in the pockets of the people of Virginia.”

But Dominion lobbyists told lawmakers the bill would undercut Dominion’s ability to do clean energy projects, a claim refuted by the SCC.

Browder, speaking softly and without naming Dominion, told senators, “I believe that there may be some attempt at confusion on the issues here.”

He reminded them of times Dominion made claims that didn’t pan out, like in 2014 when lawmakers passed a bill allowing Dominion to charge customers for research on a nuclear reactor. The utility had argued it needed the funds to keep the project moving. Dominion charged customers $320 million for the work but later paused development of the reactor.

Others on the panel defended the utility.

“There are 26 to 29 states with higher rates than Dominion, so are they ripping off their customers too?” Saslaw asked one speaker; two speakers then told him rates are only part of what Dominion customers see on their bills. Dominion’s base rates make up about 60% of the average residential power bill, with additional charges for construction projects and fuel costs making up the rest.

The Senate Republican leader, Tommy Norment, accused “environmental groups and lower-income groups” of having “done their absolute unequivocal best to bend Dominion over in every way imaginable.”

The rate bill died in the Senate committee, 8-7. Six Democrats, including Saslaw, were joined by two Republicans in killing the measure.

With a Little Help From the Governor’s Office

For much of the session, environmental groups and Dominion were at an impasse over the Clean Economy Act. And with time running short, the Northam administration stepped in to mediate.

The governor, who had called for ambitious clean energy goals, supported Dominion’s offshore wind plan. He also had deep ties to the utility. Dominion has contributed $291,000 to Northam’s political campaigns and committees throughout his career. Northam also had tapped some of the utility’s top lobbyists — including Murray — to help his transition team in 2017 and later hired Dominion’s director of strategic communications as his chief communications officer.

Angela Navarro, Northam’s deputy commerce secretary, led talks between Dominion and the environmental groups.

Before entering state government, she was a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center. Both sides saw her as a credible broker. Emails obtained through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act show Navarro taking the lead in making changes to the Clean Economy Act based on the negotiations.

One of the sticking points was cost: The amount lawmakers would order regulators to approve for the offshore wind project was obscured in the bill by a complicated equation. One part called for multiplying the energy cost of a certain type of natural gas plant by 1.6. Negotiators agreed to reduce 1.6 to 1.4, thereby cutting the projected cost.

Another part of the equation specified that the average energy cost of that gas plant should be the cost most recently estimated by a federal agency.

On Jan. 29, the most recent federal estimates were published, showing a 25% drop from 2019. Under the bill’s language, that meant the amount the legislature was telling regulators to allow Dominion to charge its customers fell, to $7.3 billion.

But on March 4, the day before lawmakers would introduce a new version for a final debate, Navarro made a critical alteration to the legislation.

Records show she changed “most recently” to “2019,” a tweak backed by Dominion that immediately boosted the acceptable price tag of the offshore wind project. The increase was roughly $2.5 billion, an analysis by the SCC would later show.

text highlights
The change to “2019” added roughly $2.5 billion to the project’s acceptable cost. (Highlights added by ProPublica and The Times-Dispatch)

Navarro said in a July interview she had no records from anyone asking her to make that change. She said the group negotiated the language. “I think we discussed it amongst all of the stakeholders,” Navarro said.

But five of the main environmental and trade association members who participated in discussions told the Times-Dispatch and ProPublica they did not ask for the alteration and weren’t aware of it at the time.

“We definitely did not ask for that change,” said Town, of the League of Conservation Voters.

Documents obtained through a FOIA request show that the language change was, in fact, a priority for Dominion. And phone records reveal that Navarro spoke to the utility’s representatives on March 4 just before and after emailing negotiators the tweaked legislation. One of those representatives did not return phone calls seeking comment and the other said she did not remember the nature of the conversation.

The next morning, a lawyer for Dominion emailed Navarro requesting several changes to the bill, records show. A state bill drafter had added “2019” to the cost formula, as Navarro directed, but did not cut “most recently.” The Dominion lawyer told Navarro to strike “most recently” and listed that request among “policy choices/more than typos.”

Dominion’s legal team also wanted Navarro to insert language into the bill that would allow Dominion to charge its Virginia customers extra if North Carolina regulators wouldn’t let the utility pass the Clean Economy Act charges along to Dominion’s 123,000 customers there. That language had been removed inadvertently, so Navarro approved putting it back into the legislation.

Navarro declined to comment about her phone records, her emails and the statements from environmental negotiators that they had not been involved in the key change that benefited Dominion.

Clark Mercer, the governor’s chief of staff, said in a statement for this story that Navarro was not aware of any new federal data that would have changed the cost in the bill until after the bill passed, and he wrote that she believed the change was “consensus language” from stakeholders.

Navarro left her job in the governor’s office on Sept. 4. Northam’s press secretary said Navarro had been planning to leave for several months.

Clean Economy Act supporters note that Dominion will be required to take competitive bids for most of the work to build the offshore wind farm, which it said would lower costs.

But under the bill, Dominion can recover at least $9.8 billion in costs — more than $2 billion above its latest estimate, the SCC later said in an analysis.

A Historic Law, a Risky Bet

Lawmakers in the House debated the new version of the Clean Economy Act on March 5. No one brought up the change in the cost equation or the resulting dollar amount.

McClellan, the Senate sponsor, told the Times-Dispatch and ProPublica she was unaware of the alteration until the news organizations asked her about it, months after the bill passed. Sullivan, the House sponsor, said he was aware of the change but not the resulting dollar amount.

That day, Sullivan described the Clean Economy Act as “transformative and historic” and said it would help the coastal Virginia region become a national hub for offshore wind manufacturing. Other states “are vying to become that hub,” he said on the House floor, “and Virginia needs to act now.”

But a few Democrats spoke against the bill, casting it as a giveaway to Dominion.

Del. Lee Carter, a Democratic socialist from Manassas, told his colleagues that they had been manipulated.

“Dominion Energy’s addiction is to its monopoly power and to ratepayer money, and they have adapted to Democratic control over the General Assembly,” he said. “In previous years, they’ve gotten their ratepayer money through fossil fuel projects because that is what they could get through a Republican-held General Assembly. Now they have adapted and they’re doing their price gouging on renewable energy projects. They are, in my opinion, taking advantage of this new majority’s desire to do something for the environment and they are using that as a way to gouge the citizens of this commonwealth.”

Rasoul, the Dominion critic from Roanoke, introduced amendments to reduce the cost of offshore wind development, but Sullivan labeled them a “poison pill.” The majority killed them.

The Clean Economy Act passed the House, 51-45, on March 5, and passed the Senate, 22-17, the next day. One Republican in each chamber joined Democrats.

Northam signed the legislation in April.

The environmental negotiators say they are happy with the progressive policies in the new law.

Its mandate that utilities generate all electricity without fossil fuels by 2050 is the first of its kind in the South.

The law requires the SCC to consider the social costs of carbon emissions for new utility projects, which environmentalists say will help the state fight climate change.

“It will be very hard for Dominion to get approval to build any gas of any size,” said Cleveland,  who helped write the original Clean Economy Act.

The law also shrinks Dominion’s energy monopoly a bit, allowing private parties to own 35% of new large solar projects. Previous law capped that amount at 25%. Environmental negotiators wanted a 50-50 split.

Other environmentalists, however, said the bill moves too slowly toward a transition to renewable energy. On energy efficiency, the language in the law was watered down to the point that the utility can nearly meet the mandate through programs it already planned under a previous law, according to a company filing.

Will Reisinger, a former assistant attorney general who practices with Richmond clean energy firm ReisingerGooch, said the bill is good for Dominion because it allows the company to make a lot of money. And the legislature missed an opportunity to pair that with fair electricity rates, he said.

“We have to pay attention to costs,” he said. “If we do the clean energy transition in a really expensive, inefficient manner, it’s going to impose unreasonable, unbearable costs on consumers and businesses and I just don’t think it’s going to work.”

But from Wall Street, Virginia took away risk for investors, which is important, said Shar Pourreza, managing director for North American power and utilities at New York investment firm Guggenheim Partners.

In other states, the risk of developing offshore wind is on the utility, he said.

For Dominion, the law has taken on even more significance.

Four months after the session ended, on July 5, its parent company announced it was selling its gas assets and canceling plans to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, an $8 billion project to carry natural gas from West Virginia. Dominion said the federally regulated project collapsed, in part, because of legal challenges from environmentalists.

Dominion Executive Chair Tom Farrell said in a news release that the company would instead focus on something else: A clean energy profile in “its premier state-regulated, sustainability-focused utilities.”

In Full-Page Richmond Times-Dispatch Ad, Organizations Call on Lawmakers to Force Dominion Energy Refunds
October 5, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

In Full-Page Richmond Times-Dispatch Ad, Organizations Call on Lawmakers to Force Dominion Energy Refunds 

Dominion Energy is trying to keep over $500 million that it overcharged Virginians.”

October 5, 2020

CONTACT:

Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications and Advocacy Director

cassady@cleanvirginia.org, 828-817-3328

RICHMOND, VA —  Nearly 40 organizations placed a full-page ad in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch calling on lawmakers to demand that Dominion Energy return the $502.7 million it has overcharged Virginians since 2017. 

VIEW FULL AD HERE 

A coalition of 36 prominent advocacy organizations from Virginia signed onto the ad, which reads: “The Virginia General Assembly cannot let Dominion Energy get away with exploiting the legislative session by turning what was supposed to provide economic relief for families and businesses into another way for them to keep and take money from Virginians.” The ad is also running on the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s homepage. 

The House and Senate have so far failed to include a budget proposal from Governor Northam that would return $320 million of the utility monopoly’s overcharges back to Virginians in the form of customer refunds and debt forgiveness. The State Corporation Commission denied the Governor’s latest request for a utility disconnection moratorium last week after months of warning that legislative action was required to avoid shifting the financial burden to paying customers. 

“Legislators who accept massive amounts of money from Dominion are once again letting the monopoly get away with a stark injustice,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore. “Even before the COVID crisis, Black households were three times more likely to make serious sacrifices to pay their utility bills than non-minority households and Latinx households were twice as likely. The Virginia General Assembly must combat economic inequality during two unprecedented crises by demanding Dominion Energy refund its overcharges back to Virginians who have already paid more than their fair share.”

The Richmond Times-Dispatch ad was signed by the following organizations: American Promise, Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, Appalachian Voices, ARTivism Virginia, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Clean Virginia, Climate Action Alliance of the Valley, Community Climate Collaborative, Earth Rise Indivisible, EcoAction Arlington, Food & Water Action, the Humanization Project, Indivisible Virginia, Lewinsville Faith in Action, the Manufactured Home Community Coalition of Virginia, Mothers Out Front VA, NAKASEC Virginia, Network NOVA, New Virginia Majority, NOVA Grassroots,  Piedmont Environmental Council, Progress Virginia, Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, Tenants and Worker United, Virginia Conservation Network, Virginia Housing Alliance, Virginia Grassroots Coalition, Virginia Interfaith Power & Light, Virginia Justice Democrats, Virginia League of Conservation Voters, Virginia Organizing, Virginia Poverty Law Center, WE of Action Virginia, 350 Alexandria, 350 Fairfax.

###

Clean Virginia is an independent advocacy organization with an associated Political Action Committee, Clean Virginia Fund. Clean Virginia works to fight corruption in Virginia politics in order to promote clean energy and community control over our energy policy.  For more information, visit cleanvirginia.org.

 

SCC: Dominion overcharged customers by $502M in 2017-19
August 19, 2020

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.

BREAKING: Dominion Energy overcharged Virginians by $502.7 million since 2017
August 18, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

CONTACT:

Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications and Advocacy Director

cassady@cleanvirginia.org, 828-817-3328

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: 

  • Dominion overcharged Virginians by $300.8 million in 2017 and $277.3 million in 2018. 
  • Dominion reports a 11.79% earned return on equity (ROE) level for 2017-2019. This is above the monopoly’s authorized ROE of 9.20%. 
  • Dominion reports a lower earnings figure in 2019, attributable to Dominion’s decision to record the remaining value of 11 fossil fuel power plants that it retired early – $263.7 million – as an expense that was incurred in a single year. The SCC has the authority to amortize the remaining value of those plants over a much longer period of time, thanks to a law (HB528) passed earlier this year. The passage of that law means the SCC will likely find Dominion to have a much higher earned ROE in 2019 when it is able to review the utility’s accounting in its 2021 rate case. 
  • Similarly, the SCC notes that Dominion has recorded a $630 million “expense” in the first quarter of 2020, which is the remaining value of the generation facilities Dominion chose to retire that quarter. The SCC will examine this expense in Dominion’s 2021 rate case and, with its authority to protect the interests of ratepayers, the agency may find it has a different impact on Dominion’s 2017-2020 earned ROE than the company is claiming.  

“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.”

###

Battle lines forming over Appalachian Power’s bid to increase rates
August 10, 2020

In deciding whether to approve the request, the State Corporation Commission must navigate new laws on utility regulation while considering questions and objections from businesses, environmental groups, advocates for low-income customers and others.

Some are questioning the accounting practice used by Appalachian to justify raising the price of its electricity.

In a legal memorandum filed with the SCC late last month, the Virginia Attorney General’s Division of Consumer Counsel said the increase is “neither appropriate from an accounting perspective nor in the interest of APCo’s ratepayers.”

Attorney General Mark Herring went further in a written statement to The Roanoke Times, saying he opposes the “unconscionable” request by Appalachian that would “lead to an unjustified increase for ratepayers.”

Appalachian has yet to file a response with the SCC. In a written statement last week, company spokeswoman Teresa Hall said: “We respectfully disagree with the Attorney General’s position; however, it would be inappropriate to comment further on a legal issue.”

The accounting practice in question stems from a convoluted regulatory process that has been repeatedly revised by the General Assembly.Under a law passed in 2018, whether a utility is entitled to raise its base rates is determined by its earnings over a three-year period immediately prior to the request. If earnings fall below a return on equity authorized by the SCC — 9.4% for Appalachian — the commission can approve a rate increase.

If, on the other hand, earnings over the triennial period exceeded the allowed rate, the utility could be prohibited from collecting even more revenue through a rate increase.

Appalachian’s return on equity was 11.3% in 2017 and 9.8% in 2018, which exceeded its allowed rate, according to an SCC filing by the Virginia Poverty Law center, one of nearly a dozen participants in the case.

In 2019, the utility’s rate dropped to 3.8%, bringing the average return on equity over the triennial to 8.2% — low enough for an increase to be requested, the poverty law center said in its filing.

In an assertion backed by the attorney general’s office, the filing states that Appalachian’s low rate in 2019 was due to its decision to offset earnings that year with the costs of the early retirement of fossil fuel-fired power plants.

That expense, which includes the shutdown of the Glen Lyn plant in Giles County and the partial closing and conversion of the Clinch River plant in Russell County, was nearly $90 million.

The problem with that, the attorney general’s office argues, is that the early retirements happened in 2015 and 2016, before the three-year period used to determine whether a rate increase is justified.

Only after Appalachian’s management realized that the company would nearly exceed its authorized rate of return did it adjust its accounting books in December 2019 — the final month of the triennial — in a way that allowed it to seek an increase, the attorney general maintains.

“The statute does not permit APCo to reach and snag out-of-period costs and expense them as if they were part of this Triennial Review period,” the legal memorandum states.

“Such a reading of the statute would permit an absurd result.”

‘A big test’

To fully understand what is happening, a bit of recent history is helpful.

In 2015, the General Assembly approved a rate freeze for Appalachian and Dominion, the state’s largest electricity utilities. Among other things, the law halted the ability of the SCC to lower base rates and issue refunds. Critics said it also locked in rates that were already too high.

Three years later, the freeze was lifted when legislators passed the Grid Transformation Security Act, which supporters said gave regulators more power over the electricity monopolies.

One of the many things the new law did was switch from a two-year period to the current triennial period to determine rates. Appalachian is the first to use the process; Dominion’s turn will come next year.

Critics of the 2018 law say it still deprived regulators of their full authority, allowing bookkeeping tactics that shortchanged customers. “They can fudge the accounting and make it look like they need to raise rates,” said Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke.

Rasoul co-patroned a bill that became law this year, giving the SCC the power to determine how to best handle the long-term recovery of costs associated with the early retirement of power plants.

The attorney general’s office contends that the law should prevent Appalachian from lumping all of the expenses into a single year. “But for this extraordinary earnings test adjustment,” its legal memorandum states, “the Company would be unable to justify its request to increase the rates paid by its customers.”

How Appalachian’s case plays out before the SCC will be “a big test of this bill, that’s for sure,” Rasoul said.

“It’s clear that we must have the SCC at full power to oversee these regulated monopolies,” he said. Otherwise, the utilities “are going to act in their best interests, at the expense of the ratepayers.”

However, it should come as no surprise that Appalachian is seeking to raise its base rates, which have remained the same for some years because of the freeze, said Greg Habeeb, a former member of the House of Delegates who heads the regulatory and government affairs practice group for the Roanoke-based law firm of Gentry Locke.

“The real question is whether the 2018 legislation and anything passed in 2020 changes the paradigm at all,” Habeeb wrote in an email.

For years, investor-owned utilities have fully depreciated a generation asset in a single year to offset earnings. The accounting practice has been “historically legal but is a controversial topic,” he wrote.

According to Habeeb, the law passed this year “was an under the radar screen bill, but many insiders think this bill alone would result in hundreds of millions of dollars in ‘overearnings’ being returned to ratepayers.”

It isn’t that the utilities have exceeded what they’re entitled to earn, Habeeb said, but rather that they are using the retirement of an expensive asset all in one year to offset earnings, which means they don’t have to make refunds to customers.

Not all of Appalachian’s rate request is connected to the early retirements of coal plants, Hall said.

“The increase is primarily tied to recovering the cost of ongoing investments in the company’s generating plants and distribution network to increase and enhance reliability, and to respond to customer demands for cleaner energy resources,” her written statement read. “The company continuously makes such investments, but has not had an increase in its base rates since 2011.”

An SCC hearing examiner is scheduled to take public comments Sept. 14 and hear testimony for several days. Michael Thomas will then make a recommendation to the full commission, which must decide by Nov. 30 on a rate increase that would take effect early next year.

In a motion filed last month, the Virginia Poverty Law Center asked Thomas to rule before the hearing on whether the 2020 law will apply to Appalachian’s rate request.

“Simply put, the case participants — and the public — have a right to know what kind of case this is,” the motion stated.

A matter of timing

News that Appalachian’s residential customers could face an increase of about $10 a month for every 1,000 kilowatts of electricity they use came at perhaps the worst possible time.

A press release from the utility was issued March 31, when it was becoming clear that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus was both a public health and financial crisis.

“Submitting a rate case during a pandemic is certainly not ideal, but we weren’t at liberty to change the date,” Appalachian spokeswoman Hall wrote in a statement last week.

The Grid Transformation and Security Act, passed three years before the word coronavirus became part of the country’s daily vernacular, required Appalachian to make the filing when it did.

But “nobody was holding a gun to the utility’s head, saying you must ask for more money,” said Dana Wiggins, director of the Center for Community Outreach at the poverty law center.

Appalachian is doing all it can to help customers during this difficult time, Hall said. It stopped disconnecting accounts for nonpayment on March 13 — several days before the SCC ordered most utilities to take that action — and has encouraged customers to make flexible payment arrangements while they regain their financial footing.

The utility is also proposing, as part of its request to the SCC, a new rate discount that will be available December through February of every year, Hall said.

Under the plan, customers with higher winter usage, such as those with electric heat, may see little or no increase, or even a decrease in their annual bills, she said. About 66% of the utility’s low-income customers heat with electricity.

But even more people may be defined as low-income before the virus’s financial damage wanes. “To some extent, yes, the pool of people we advocate for has increased,” Wiggins said.

“We’re all in a new normal, and the ground is shifting beneath us,” she said. If others can adjust to those changes, she asked, why can’t Appalachian?

Virginia’s Energy Kingpin Could Finally Face A Reckoning Over Race
July 23, 2020

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.

A Tale Of Two Compressor Stations

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.

Building Over Black History

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.

The Rates Card

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 Lost Cause Film

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.”

Munley: Virginia doesn’t need McAuliffe, the pipeline cheerleader
July 23, 2020

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 knowingly threw Virginia into a predatory state and federal regulatory system where most advantages were rigged for industry. Landowners and environmentalists were left to fight with a stack of disadvantages including a McAuliffe-Northam Department of Environmental Quality apparently following the lax, anti-regulatory, pro-industry Trump EPA model. Adding insult, after hosting the calamitous MVP over Virginia Appalachia’s unsuitably steep and karst-ridden terrain, Virginia ratepayers are then expected to help pay for MVP — the most expensive per-mile pipeline.

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.

The billions Virginians lose from McAuliffe’s pipelines become the McAuliffe gift that “keeps on giving.” Laws that make America better and Virginia cleaner have been boldly violated. McAuliffe should not be empowered to “play us again” with secret deals and destructive scams that permanently diminish Virginia’s resources. Terry McAuliffe’s big money and big deals are too expensive for Virginia.
Clean Virginia Supports Del. Jay Jones’ Bid for Attorney General with $100,000 Contribution
July 15, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications Director
cassady@cleanvirginia.org, 828-817-3328

Clean Virginia Supports Del. Jay Jones’ Bid for Attorney General with $100,000 Contribution
An additional $145,000 goes to an unprecedented 50 General Assembly members who refuse contributions from Virginia utility monopolies

July 15, 2020

Charlottesville — Clean Virginia Fund, the Political Action Committee associated with advocacy organization Clean Virginia, contributed $100,000 to Delegate Jay Jones’ (D-Norfolk) campaign for Attorney General, which he formally announced this week, and a total of $145,000 to 50 members of the Virginia Assembly during the second quarter of 2020. Over a third of the Virginia General Assembly now share a principled stance against accepting contributions from Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, the utility monopolies regulated by the General Assembly, and do not own stock in these corporations. Clean Virginia’s second-quarter giving totals $445,000, including $100,000 contributions to both Senator Jennifer McClellan’s (D-Richmond) and Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy’s (D-Prince William) campaigns for Governor, announced last month.

“Delegate Jones has demonstrated how hard he is willing to fight for everyday Virginians as evidenced by his bipartisan leadership during the 2020 General Assembly session to advance fair energy bills in Virginia,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore. “Virginians deserve a leader like Jones who will prioritize justice for Virginia families and small businesses rather than protecting the excess profits of powerful utility monopolies.”

The 50 recipients of standard contributions from Clean Virginia Fund represent over a third of the Virginia General Assembly and include 41 House Delegates and nine State Senators. Clean Virginia contributes $2,500 and $5,000 annually to Delegate and Senators, respectively, who refuse political contributions from Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, utility monopolies regulated by the General Assembly.

“Virginia is entering a new era of politics in which an emergent bipartisan coalition of lawmakers rightfully fights for fair energy policy that advances affordable clean energy, lowers prices, and brings new, high-paying jobs into the Commonwealth,” Gilmore said. “Dominion Energy has manipulated the General Assembly for too long, writing the rules that allowed them to overcharge Virginians by over $2.3 billion in the past decade. Now, over a third of Virginia’s legislative body considers the monopoly’s money toxic. It is only a matter of time and continued public pressure before the General Assembly bans Dominion’s political contributions for good and finally extinguishes the monopoly’s unchecked legalized corruption.”

###

Clean Virginia is an independent advocacy organization with an associated Political Action Committee, Clean Virginia Fund. Clean Virginia works to fight corruption in Virginia politics in order to promote clean energy and community control over our energy policy. Clean Virginia’s funding is provided by founder Michael Bills. For details on Clean Virginia’s financial reports and political giving, please visit our listing at Virginia’s Public Access Project.

BREAKING: Dominion and Duke Energy Cancel Atlantic Coast Pipeline
July 5, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

CONTACT:

Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications Director

cassady@cleanvirginia.org, 828-817-3328

Dominion and Duke Energy Cancel Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Strong Opposition Across Virginia and Legal Challenges Render Project Unviable

July 5, 2020

Charlottesville, VA — Dominion Energy announced today the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In response, Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore said:

“Today marks a huge win for Virginia. For years, communities across the Commonwealth have fervently opposed the unnecessary and dangerous Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the most acute manifestation of Dominion Energy’s commitment to putting its financial interests above the health and economic well-being of Virginians. We owe a debt of gratitude to the many Virginians, from community activists to environmental lawyers, who successfully fought this project. We also thank Virginia’s General Assembly, which unanimously passed a law this year that created serious obstacles for Dominion Energy to pass the ballooning cost of the pipeline onto Virginians.”

“As Virginia faces an unprecedented climate crisis and economic uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that our utilities put public service above maximizing profit. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was never in the best interests of Virginians. That it was allowed to fester as long as it did is evidence of a fundamentally broken utility system that will only be remediated through structural reform. While we welcome the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s demise, this only marks the end to one symptom of the structural problem of Virginia’s monopoly utilities–the problem itself remains. We must all remain vigilant and continue working towards the creation of a sensical utility system that prioritizes the public interest and prevents projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from ever seeing the light of day.”

###

Clean Virginia is an independent advocacy organization with an associated Political Action Committee, Clean Virginia Fund. Clean Virginia works to fight corruption in Virginia politics in order to promote clean energy and community control over our energy policy.  For more information, visit cleanvirginia.org.

Clean Virginia Spends $200,000 in First Contribution to Candidates for Virginia Governor
Clean Virginia
June 25, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

CONTACT:

Cassady Craighill, Clean Virginia Communications Director, cassady@cleanvirginia.org, 828-817-3328

Clean Virginia Spends $200,000 in First Contribution to Candidates for Virginia Governor

Sen. McClellan and Del. Carroll Foy each receive $100,000 for gubernatorial bids 

June 25, 2020

Charlottesville, VA — Clean Virginia Fund, Clean Virginia’s Political Action Committee, has donated $100,000 each to two candidates for Virginia Governor: Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William), who have both launched gubernatorial campaigns. 

“Senator McClellan and Delegate Carroll Foy have both proven their commitments to put the interests of Virginians before those of our utility monopolies and have championed strong action on climate change, environmental and economic justice, and fair energy bills during their time in the General Assembly. All communities in Virginia have benefited from their compassionate leadership and sophisticated policy understanding,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore. “Clean Virginia is honored to support both of these exceptional candidates, either of whose election to Governor would be historic for our commonwealth and our country. We are prepared to do everything in our power to ensure that Virginia’s next governor will fight for Virginians, not corporate special interests.” 

Both candidates share a principled stance against accepting campaign contributions from regulated monopolies Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, including their employed registered lobbyists, and do not own stock in these corporations. 

Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy have both championed legislation that would advance clean energy, protect the environment, and promote good governance:

  • Sen. McClellan championed landmark climate and energy legislation in 2020, the Virginia Clean Economy Act and the Solar Freedom Act, fighting for aggressive carbon-reduction goals and more accessibility to small-scale solar in order to combat the climate crisis. The Senator has since challenged Dominion Energy to revise its latest long-term energy plan, citing its failure to meet the goals of the Virginia Clean Economy Act and for shifting costs disproportionately to customers. 
  • Del. Carroll Foy sponsored bipartisan legislation to force Dominion Energy to excavate coal ash from its Virginia facilities and pay for a clean water supply for residents whose well water may have been contaminated. Del. Foy also successfully led a legislative effort to encourage more public utility contracts with small, women-owned, and minority-owned businesses.

During the 2018-2019 Virginia General Assembly election cycle, Clean Virginia Fund and its Board Chair Michael Bills contributed over $1.8 million to Democratic and Republican candidates who demonstrated a principled stance against accepting contributions from utility monopolies regulated by the General Assembly. Clean Virginia Fund anticipates an even larger involvement in Virginia’s 2021 primary and general election cycles to support candidates who prioritize Virginians over corporate interests and who are committed to greater transparency and ethics in government. 

###

Clean Virginia is an independent advocacy organization with an associated Political Action Committee, Clean Virginia Fund. Clean Virginia works to fight corruption in Virginia politics in order to promote clean energy and community control over our energy policy.  For more information, visit cleanvirginia.org.