Commentary: Utility has too much influence

Dominion Virginia Power, the Commonwealth’s dominant electric utility, has far too much influence in the governmental processes of the Old Dominion, juiced by high voltage campaign contributions.

This inordinate influence was on stark display in the recently concluded General Assembly session, Exhibit A being the enactment of the “Electric utility regulation; suspension of regulatory reviews of utility earnings” Bill [SB 1349], authored by one of Dominion’s leading abettors, Sen. Frank Wagner [R-Norfolk/Virginia Beach].

The AP reported Feb. 3 that Wagner sold his shares of Dominion stock “… a day after the AP reported that several lawmakers own stock in the state’s dominant electric utility but have not abstained on votes friendly to the company.”

From Dominion’s largess, Wagner received $3,000 in campaign contributions in 2014-15, and $43,100, as well as $5,468 in gifts, over his General Assembly career.

The bill was largely authored by Dominion Power, subjected to a sham hearing in both chambers, and, regrettably, signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, even though Attorney General Mark Herring opposed it.

“We oppose bills like this that limit the attorney general’s ability to advocate on behalf of consumers for the lowest rates possible or that tie the hands of the State Corporation Commission in setting appropriate rates,” said Michael Kelly, director of communications for the Attorney General’s Office.

This legislation not only prohibits the commission from doing its rate-regulating job the next five years, Dominion’s officers and lobbyists also misrepresented the impact of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, designed to reduce carbon emissions, falsely claiming it will impose extraordinary expenses on Virginia customers.

When the EPA released its plan last June, clean energy advocates cheered it as America’s first serious response to rising carbon emissions.

At hearings held across Virginia, supporters of the plan far outnumbered opponents, making it clear the public welcomes EPA’s plan as a way to break the rise in carbon emissions while opening the door to new economic opportunities in solar, wind, and energy efficiency.

Yet, most Republican legislators introduced numerous bills designed to protect the fossil fuel status quo.

Senate Bill 1349 creates unnecessary insulation of the power giant from the benefits to consumers, and the environment, of the Clean Power Plan, and will enable Dominion to pocket excess profits, making its political contributions kitty even larger.

Meanwhile, Dominion is heading in the wrong direction on climate disruption. Its 15-year plan shows it will actually increase CO2 emissions by some 32 percent.

Dominion made $1.4 million in Virginia political campaign contributions in 2012 and 2013, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

These funds are drawn from the charges customers pay in their electric bills. Those rates are regulated by Virginia law and [normally] the reviews and oversight operations of the State Corporation Commission.

Campaign contributions by regulated utilities are inappropriate, unethical, and uneconomic.

This unsavory system in Virginia short-circuits the healthy balance of interests, access, and actions to create an arrangement wherein the voice of the people is nearly ignored while Dominion’s staff and lobbyists write legislation that benefits the company and present biased, misleading testimony to help sell the bills favorable to itself.

Some General Assembly members are proud of the ethics law revisions passed in the 2015 session. The absence of a provision prohibiting political contributions by Dominion, and all regulated industries/utilities, creates a thunderstorm on their celebration parade.

The ethics bill merely lowered the threshold for permissible gifts to elected officials. Due to its narrowness, rather than helping to restore public trust in government, as some legislators claim, it serves to reinforce the widespread distrust of the rancid relationship between Dominion Virginia Power and the Old Dominion’s government.

Dominion not only engages in dirty politics, it also ranks dead last in progress on renewable energy and energy efficiency among all state utilities, according to the corporate watchdog group CERES.

Among other concerned groups amping up this issue, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club recently launched its “The People vs. Dominion” accountability campaign.

According to Federal Elections Commission information, 22 states have laws that prohibit political campaign contributions by regulated industries and/or utilities.

It is past time that Virginia join that group. Dominion’s inordinate political and governance influence, as well as its abysmal climate change and energy efficiency record, need to be key 2015 campaign issues and the subjects of must-pass legislative action for the 2016 General Assembly.

Dennis Atwood, of Maurertown, is a member of the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley.