Antipathy toward Virginia’s electric power companies is entering the realm of electoral politics. More than 50 Democratic candidates running for the Virginia House of Delegates have signed a pledge saying that they will “never” accept campaign contributions from Dominion Virginia Power or Appalachian Power, reports Graham Moomaw with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The pledge was circulated by Activate Virginia, a progressive Political Action Committee dedicated to electing more Democrats to the House of Representatives, calling for a “principled stand” against the fossil-fuel industry to prevent “environmental catastrophe,” Moomaw writes. Activate Virginia did not circulate the petition to House of Delegates incumbents, most of who have already accepted campaign contributions from electric utilities.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Dominion has donated $767,000 to political candidates in 2016-2017, while Appalachian Power has contributed $278,000.
The Activate Virginia initiative threatens to drive a wedge in the Democratic Party between those who place environmental priorities foremost and those who seek a balance between environmental and economic-development considerations. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, viewed as the establishment Democratic candidate, has accepted Dominion money. Rival Tom Perriello has called upon him to reject further donations, saying that Virginia’s next governor “must aggressively promote clean, renewable energy.”
Although Republican gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart has been highly critical of Dominion Virginia Power’s plans to dispose of coal ash, Dominion and Apco are less toxic to Republican sensibilities. Cutting CO2 emissions isn’t a priority for Republicans, who tend to be skeptical of the idea that global warming presents a crisis for human health and prosperity.
A confluence of factors has caused the surge in anti-utility sentiment.
First is a shift in fuel mix from coal to other energy sources that has prompted utilities to re-engineer their electric transmission systems and natural gas delivery systems. The result has been a wave of major new or upgraded infrastructure projects, both electric transmission lines and natural gas pipelines, which are visually intrusive and potentially environmentally disruptive.
Second is the relatively slow pace in Virginia of adopting renewable energy, especially solar. Under the current regulatory structure, Dominion and Apco have no incentive to cooperate with independent companies seeking to build solar projects and sell electricity directly to consumers. Instead of seeking regulatory reforms to alter the incentives — a formidable undertaking — environmentalists have taken to attacking Dominion and Apco for pursuing their self interest.
Third is the unexpected emergence of coal ash disposal as a major environmental issue. No one anticipated this two years ago when the Environmental Protection Agency enacted regulations to close coal ash pits in order to prevent spills into public waterways. The debate over how best to dispose of the ash — whether to bury in place or to convey millions of tons to lined landfills — has become enormously contentious.
Fourth is a regulatory freeze in base electric rates, negotiated in a legislative deal two years ago in response to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. The Trump administration likely will seek to scuttle the plan, which would render the need for a rate freeze moot. Critics contend that the freeze has allowed Dominion and Apco to lock hundreds of millions of dollars of excess profits in place; the utilities deny the charges.
Because these conflicts are complex and deep-rooted with no easy resolution, they will persist for years. Indeed, multi-billion dollar decisions over the future of nuclear power in Virginia could add a new element to the debate. Popular agitation over electric-utility policies could well intensify, and utility campaign contributions, now dispensed without regard to political party, could well become a partisan litmus test.