Category Archives: Money in politics

Campaign Contributions and Selective Indignation

Steve Nash, author of “Virginia Climate Fever,” is on a crusade against Dominion Energy, electric utilities, the coal industry and other corporate special interests that donate vast sums of money to Virginia politicians. He has been submitting op-eds to newspapers around the state taking Dominion and Appalachian Power to task for their outsized campaign contributions.

Writing most recently in the (Lynchburg) News & Advance, Steve asks:

So whether you’re conservative, green, libertarian or liberal, here’s the question: Can your legislator explain why it’s OK to accept “donations” from the two power companies and still cast votes on legislation that affects not only their profits, but also our electric bills and, crucially, our environment? For that matter, why is it legitimate to take money from any corporate interests who also have legislative needs that should not pre-empt the public interest?

Now, Steve is a very close friend of mine, and we debate issues like this with regularity. One of the things that I love about Steve is that, although he is tenacious in his beliefs, he does make an effort to understand the other side of the argument. He engages in reasoned, gentlemanly discussion rather than resorting to change-the-subject evasions and ad hominem attacks. I will endeavor to engage Steve’s arguments in the same generous spirit.

It is an article of faith on the left that the coal and electric-power industries, and Dominion most of all, are fending off worthy environmentalist legislation by buying legislators’ loyalties. Dominion, as Steve points out, has given more than $7.4 million to legislators of both parties since 2016 — $826,000 in 2016-17 alone. The company is Virginia’s top donor. And it doesn’t hand out the money in a spirit of charity and good will. Like everyone else, Dominion gives money because it hopes to get something in return — access, if not legislators’ votes.

As Steve writes:

Public servants who take Dominion’s and Appalachian’s money have voted on countless power-utility-related bills, listened to the pitches of the sturdy corps of power company lobbyists, and then handed those companies a lengthening series of legislative home runs worth hundreds of millions of dollars — perhaps a billion or two by some estimates. And they routinely vote on legislation affecting the bankers, realtors, beer wholesalers, the health industry and their other benefactors.

Please note that Steve seems to have no problem with environmental interests donating large sums of money. As the Staunton News Leader observed recently, the top three environmental campaign donors, the League of Conservation Voters, NextGen Climate Action, and the Sierra Club have shelled out $5.0 million to individual statewide candidates over the past decade, compared to Dominion’s $3.3 million. (The comparison is not entirely fair because it doesn’t include other utility and fossil fuel interests. But the article makes the point that environmentalists aren’t slouches when it comes to throwing around big money.)

Steve and other environmentalists frequently note that Dominion donated $75,000 to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign, not including thousands more from individual Dominion executives. Although I don’t recall Steve making the connection, others have suggested that such campaign booty explains the governor’s support for the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, of which Dominion is the managing partner.

But the critics of utility donations never acknowledge that NextGen Climate Action, founded by California hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, donated more than $1.6 million to McAuliffe! Another $1.7 million came from the League of Conservation Voters, and nearly $470,000 from the Sierra Club. Nor do the critics ever observe that, as a reward to his environmental supporters, McAuliffe appointed Angela Navarro, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, as deputy secretary of Natural Resources.

When was the last time a Dominion Energy executive was appointed to a senior administrative post?

Steve holds up as exemplars more than five dozen House of Delegates candidates who have signed a pledge to refuse to accept campaign cash from either Dominion or Apco. These are mostly Democrats, but Steve argues that conservatives should join the movement, too. After all, big money in politics encourages big government.

As a libertarian, I agree that big money and big government are intertwined.  And as a libertarian, I have no problem with candidates voluntarily turning down corporate money — as opposed to restricting the right of corporations to offer the money. But as best I can tell, Tom Steyer, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club are not calling for less government. They just want to utilize the power of state government to different ends.

The difference between the electric utilities and the environmentalists, Steve implies in the quote above, is that the utilities are lobbying for their own private interests while environmentalists are pushing for the “public interest.”

It’s fair to say that environmentalists believe they are working for the public interest. But they’re working for their definition of the public interest. Their’s is not necessarily the same definition that, say, coal miners in Southwest Virginia would adopt. Or that economic developers in natural gas-constrained Hampton Roads would use. Or that electric rate payers would use. Or that businesses and homeowners counting on the reliability of the electric grid would use.

Environmentalists are a special interest lobby just like Dominion, Apco and the coal companies. That doesn’t make them evil; it doesn’t even make them wrong. Indeed, I’m happy to entertain the idea that in many instances, they are right. But it is romantic nonsense to insist that environmentalists dwell in some higher ethical plane and that their goals are any more pure than anyone else’s.

Bacon’s bottom line: If Dominion, Apco, the coal industry, Tom Steyer, the Sierra Club, and every other corporate or special interest group under the sun didn’t believe that money didn’t buy them access, they wouldn’t give the money. Clearly, money does influence the public policy process. But so does the media. So do grass roots organizing efforts. So do lawsuits. And, believe it or not, so do the actual merits of the case.

Thanks to the Virginia Public Access Project, it’s easy to follow campaign money. However, a large fraction of the cash dedicated to influencing public policy is invisible. We can’t track how much different groups are spending on public relations and influencing the press. We can’t track how much money is spent on research, organizing demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, and other grass-roots activities. We can’t track how much money is spent on filing lawsuits and pressuring regulators.

Wouldn’t it be great if the electric utilities and environmental groups alike revealed how much they spent on such efforts? I’m not holding my breath. Most groups hew to the ethic of “Transparency for thee, but not for me.” Until such time as we know the bigger picture, I’m not inclined to make a big deal about disparities in one channel — campaign contributions — for influencing the political process.

Update: I just came across a 2014 Mother Jones article that said Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action spent $8 million “to keep Republican Ken Cuccinelli out of the state’s top office.” So, Steyer spent more money in one year than Dominion donated in ten.

Ralph Northam’s Plan to Empower Virginia’s Political Class


Under pressure from his rival for accepting money from Dominion, Democratic Party candidate for governor Ralph Northam has called for a cap on campaign donations and a ban on corporate contributions.

“Virginia’s campaign finance system is a boondoggle that alienates its citizens and makes them lose faith in government,” Northam said in a statement. “Virginians across every part of the political spectrum want a system that is more responsive to the people, and less reliant on big checks from a few donors.”

Reports the Washington Post:

Northam’s plan would limit donations to $10,000 (with political parties excluded), bar businesses and corporations from giving and require nonprofits trying to influence Virginia elections to reveal their donors.

Hmmm. Interesting plan. Let’s see how it would work out in the 2017 gubernatorial race.

Based on campaign contributions reported so far on the Virginia Public Access Project website, the $10,000 cap on donations would hurt Northam but cripple his opponent Tom Perriello. Northam would lose $832,000 from the capped donations while his radical chic opponent, reliant upon a handful of well-heeled donors, would lose $1,243,000. The ban on business contributions would harm Northam to the tune of $220,000 while not touching Perriello at all — not one business entity was reported to have contributed to him — but the sums of money contributed by business are trivial compared to those donated by individuals. (For purposes of this analysis, I counted only business donations of $1,000 or more.)

If Northam’s plan had been enacted in this election cycle, it would have effectively knee-capped his opponent for the Democratic Party nomination. As the party-establishment candidate, Northam would have surged from a two-to-one fund-raising advantage over Perriello to a more than four-to-one advantage.

Of course, if Northam’s campaign-finance plan were enacted, it would apply to future elections, not this one, so no one can accuse him of designing it with the idea of taking out Perriello. But the numbers show how campaign reform proposals potentially can have an anti-democratic effect. Personally, I have no use for Perriello or his leftist brand of populism. I believe that Perriello would be a disaster as governor. But I do believe he injects a healthy competition into the democratic process.

Virginia’s political process is dominated by a two-party oligarchy which has erected all manner of rules to maintain the status quo. Northam’s plan would stifle the democratic impulse even more by making it even more difficult for outsider candidates to make a credible run at office.

Yeah, Virginia’s system of unlimited campaign contributions sucks. It gives rich people far more influence over the electoral outcome than ordinary Virginians. But is the alternative any better — bequeathing the advantage to those who rise up through the political machinery of the two-party duopoly and freezing out outsiders? The only way a third party — a Libertarian Party or a Green Party — stands a chance to make a successful run in Virginia is if an insurgent can persuade a handful of deep-pocketed sponsors to underwrite his or her campaign.

You can count on the two-party duopolists re-writing campaign donation laws to benefit themselves and squelch competitors. Northam proposes to outlaw business contributions. Why would he not also outlaw labor union contributions? Because labor unions donate overwhelmingly to Democrats — duh! It’s an iron rule of politics: People in power rig the rules to perpetuate their hold on power.

How about donations cycled through “leadership” committees? Northam would specifically exclude political parties from his caps and bans. As it turns out, he has received $110,000 from Common Good VA, a “leadership” committee set up by Northam’s political ally Governor Terry McAuliffe. Since 2014, the committee has raised $8.6 million in donations. Under Northam’s plan, contributions by Common Good VA to candidates would be exempted from the ban. Less clear from his press release is whether big donors would be permitted to contribute more than $10,000 leadership committees like Common Good VA and similar entities on the Republican side.

Northam’s plan does include a couple of good ideas. It would ban the personal use of campaign funds, and it would mandate donor disclosure for nonprofits seeking to influence Virginia elections. But the main effect of his proposals would not be to rid money from politics, but to fortify the control of Virginia’s political class over the money and suppress insurgent candidates. I don’t know anyone who thinks that’s a good idea but members of the political class.

Your Money Ain’t No Good Here, Dems Tell Utilities

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.

A New Book Examines the Virginia Way

virginia-politicsby Peter Galuszka

Over the past several years, Virginia has seen plenty of high drama and low politics.

There was the tawdry corruption trial of former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen. At the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, the school’s popular president, was temporarily ousted in a mysterious coup. Everywhere were unlimited amounts of political money, revolving doors and public benefits for rich individuals and companies.

Taken together, the events might be a tipping point for the Old Dominion, ending, or at least reining in, the so-called “Virginia Way” of lax ethics rules and the assumption that players are honest gentlepeople.

An excellent summation of how and why the stars have so aligned can be found in a new book, “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century, The Price of Power,” by Jeff Thomas (The History Press).Thomas, a Duke University engineering graduate who worked in non-profits in the District, lays out in painstaking detail how largely unregulated money donations have led to an extraordinary web of conflicts of interest. This paradigm has been going on for years and has been largely unquestioned, until now.

Drawn largely from the work of Virginia journalists and political analysts, Thomas finds that:

Thomas Farrell, the head of the power utility Dominion Resources, set up his young son Peter, an “amateur thespian,” to get the Republican nomination to be a delegate from Henrico County. Later, the Farrells used their clout to get more than $1 million in state aid for a Civil War movie they wrote and produced and in which Peter Farrell acted.

Sinecures abound. After he left the state senate in 2013, Henry Marsh, 80, became a part-time board member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control at a salary of $122,000. Del. Bob Brink 66, became a deputy commissioner for aging for $110,000 a year. Del. Algie Howell, 76, got a parole board seat worth $122,455 a year.

McGuireWoods, one of the state’s most prominent and wealthiest law and lobbying outfits, got more than $4.6 million in help from Richmond, otherwise crippled by a 25 percent poverty rate and crumbling school buildings, to build a new headquarters downtown.

The Washington Redskins, the fifth richest team in the National Football League, got $11 million from Richmond to build a summer training camp that the Redskins use only three weeks a year.

The state created a fund, with money from Virginia’s share of a huge health settlement with four large tobacco companies, to help Tobacco Road counties. One of its directors ended up in prison with a 10-year sentence for fraud and self-dealing. Still, the tobacco fund has paid money for new factories in the southern and western parts of the state that haven’t created anywhere close to the number of jobs advertised.

Exhibit A, of course, is the McDonnell case. The couple accepted more than $177,000 in cash, gifts, loans and vacations from vitamin supplement salesman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. The Supreme Court vacated the governor’s convictions, and he and his wife are now free. But their six-week-long trial in 2015 revealed extraordinary conflicts and hubris in the Executive Mansion.

Since then, the state has applied some cosmetic limits on accepting gifts. But donations can run sky high as long as they are reported. Even gift-giving still has plenty of loopholes, provided the giver is a “personal friend.” Travel funded by corporations is okay, too.

Thomas, a native Richmonder, has done Virginia residents a valuable service with his book. The depth of his research is impressive although the text is overly chopped up, making it a more difficult read.

In sum, he writes: “The Virginia Way cannot change as long as politicians’ self-conceptions hinge on their own righteousness, for if there can be no fall, there can be no catharsis.”

This review first appeared in the Washington Post’s “All Opinions Are Local” section.

The System Is Rigged… and Trump Ought to Know

The system is rigged!

Building a big, beautiful tax break

Back in the day, Virginia was one of the most reliable Republican states in presidential elections.  That changed in 2008, with the election of President Obama.  Current polling indicates that the deeply flawed Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton has a double-digit lead over Donald Trump.  The core of this support seems to be amongst college-educated whites in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

Now there is more trouble ahead for “The Donald”!! The lead story in today’s New York Times details how, after filing for bankruptcy, Trump’s New Jersey casinos owed the state of New Jersey $30 million in back taxes.  The article discusses how, after Chris Christie ascended to the governorship, the state settled for 17 cents on the dollar, or slightly less than $5 million.

And Governor Bob was indicted for, amongst other matters, riding around in a Ferrari?

— Les Schreiber

George Mason Profs: Prosecute Climate Deniers

Jadadish Shukla (right) receiving award in India.

Jagadish Shukla (right) receiving Padma Shri Award in India.

by James A. Bacon

Jagadish Shukla, a George Mason University climate scientist, thinks corporate climate deniers should be criminally prosecuted under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law.

Corporations and other organizations have “knowingly deceived” the American people about the risks of climate change, wrote Shukla and nineteen other scientists (five of whom also are GMU professors) in an open letter to President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “If corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds that have been documented in books and journal articles, it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible so that America and the world can get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate, before even more lasting damage is done.”

Wow. Is this what science has come to in the United States today — seeking criminal prosecution of those who espouse different views? The implications of this mindset are absolutely terrifying. Thankfully, only 20 scientists signed the letter, so we can be hopeful that the thinking expressed therein is not representative of most climate scientists or even climate alarmists generally — although the missive does cite as its inspiration a proposal championed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island.

The premise is that fossil fuel companies, like the tobacco companies before them, are knowingly and fraudulently disseminating false science. Barry Klinger, also a GMU climate scientist, insists that the letter signatories aren’t trying to throw climate skeptics in jail or repress their right to free speech — just squelch the right of companies engaging in fraud to sell a product that does harm.

In a Q&A on his website, Klinger is sensitive to the charges of “ideologically based legal harassment.” That’s how he described former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s aborted investigation of Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climate scientist whose name was prominent among those sullied in the East Anglia email scandal. “Apparently,” writes Klinger, “there are some who believe it is the return of the Inquisition to investigate a giant corporation but a good deed to investigate an individual scientist.”

In other words, while Klinger disapproves of Cuccinelli’s subpoena of Michael Mann’s emails — Cuccinelli never got the emails, by the way — he thinks ideologically based criminal prosecutions are OK if the targets aregiant corporations.” Pardon me for failing to see any meaningful differences between the two cases. If one is wrong, so is the other. Of course, the ultimate goal of the letter signatories is not to pursue justice but to de-fund and de-legitimize those with opposing views while maintaining their own sources of funding from government and foundations as sacrosanct.

Which brings us back to Mr. Shukla, Klinger’s colleague at GMU and lead signatory to the letter. Shukla is a scientist of some renown, who specializes in building computerized climate models and has served as a lead author for the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. He has done work reconstructing the climate of the Mediterranean world in the Roman era that I, as a serious amateur student of 1st-century Palestine, find fascinating.

I am not remotely qualified to judge the scientific value of Shukla’s work, but I do feel competent to comment upon his foray into public policy. It appears that climate alarmism, to riff off an old Saturday Night Live routine, has been bery, bery good to Mr. Shukla. Roger Pielke Jr., a climate scientist himself, notes that Shukla runs his government grants through a tax-exempt, non-profit organization, the Institute of Global Environment and Society, Inc. The Institute raked in $3.8 million in 2014, from which Shukla paid himself $293,000 in reportable compensation and his wife Anne Shukla $146,000 as a business manager. It’s not bad money, considering that Shukla also received total compensation of $250,000 as a professor and chair of the GMU Climate Dynamics department. That would make Shukla slightly more highly compensated than GMU President Angel Cabrera — and I’m betting that Cabrera’s wife doesn’t knock down a $146,000-a-year salary for work related to his job as university president.

Shukla also has been granted numerous awards and medals, including the 2012 Padma Shri Award from the government of India. In sum, he is richly rewarded financially and with status conferred by his peers for his work building global climate-change models.

I wonder if Mr. Shukla’s climate models predicted the actual, real-world temperatures of the past 18 years. The mean temperature increase has been zero, as measured by satellite readings, and within the statistical margin of error, as measured by terrestrial readings. If after the expenditure of millions of dollars Mr. Shukla has failed to forecast those readings and yet persists in raising the cry of catastrophic climate change, could we conclude, using the logic he applies to others, that his work was not only in error but fraudulent, motivated by the desire to continue the flow of lucrative research contracts — and not only fraudulent but economically devastating because it justifies the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars to combat an exaggerated threat?

Shukla certainly knows the stakes. As he himself is quoted in 2011 as saying: “It is inconceivable that policymakers will be willing to make billion-and trillion-dollar decisions for adaptation to the projected regional climate change based on models that do not even describe and simulate the processes that are the building blocks of climate variability.”

Ordinarily, I would not be inclined to equate Mr. Shukla’s behavior with criminality, but it does seem reasonable to apply to him the same criteria he applies to others. Perhaps he should be more careful about what he asks for. Once the precedent of criminalizing science has been set, some future administration might decide Shukla falls on the wrong side of the ideological divide.

Dominion Does the Right Thing, Eats Cost of Some Charitable Giving

moneyI’m a few days late getting to this, but it’s still worthy of note… Dominion Virginia Power has told the State Corporation Commission that it will not try to recover $2 million in charitable deductions made in 2013 and 2014. The Associated Press had reported that the power company had sought to include in its rate base the cost of tens of thousands of dollars donated to causes for what could be construed as political motivatations.

“Some have cynically suggested that certain charitable organizations to which we have contributed are motivated not by the civic good but instead by political considerations. We do not agree with those suggestions or that our charitable giving practices are anything other than well-intentioned,” said Paul D. Koonce, Dominion vice president, in filed testimony, reports the AP in an update.

The State Corporation Commission had declared in 2011 that it was legal to seek recompense for the contributions, but SCC staff had raised the issue anew in filed testimony. The AP story specifically mentioned $40,000 donated to a tort reform group and a $10,000 gift to a college solicited by a lawmaker who is the school’s paid fundraiser.

Bacon’s bottom line: The amount of money was miniscule — less than a penny per month per customer — but the optics were terrible. Dominion is arguably the most politically powerful corporation in Virginia, fielding a small army of lobbyists, communicators and community relations professionals while also donating major sums to political candidates. Fairly or unfairly, the company is widely said to “own” the SCC and/or legislators. For a minimal impact to shareholders, Dominion has eliminated a practice that feeds negative perceptions about the company.

— JAB

Charging Rate Payers for What?

appalachian_school_of_pharmacy

The Appalachian School of Pharmacy… located in Appalachian Power Co. service territory.

by James A. Bacon

In 2012 Dominion Virginia Power donated $10,000 to the Appalachian College of Pharmacy in Buchanan County, far outside the company’s service territory. It so happens that Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, head of the House Commerce and Labor Committee, has been a salaried fundraiser for the school, according to the Associated Press. It also so happens that Kilgore played an important role ushering legislation through the General Assembly this year that suspends until 2022 biennial reviews of Dominion’s base rates. Of the $10,000 Dominion donated, $4,000 was recouped from Dominion ratepayers, the AP says.

It’s one thing for Dominion shareholders to donate to charitable causes, even if the donation is politically motivated. Dominion should be entitled to the same right to participate in the political process as any business. But it’s quite another thing for the giant utility (and sponsor of Bacon’s Rebellion) to charge such donations to rate payers.

“Why should captive ratepayers, who have no option to get electricity from another company, be compelled to fund the charitable choices of a company?” AP quotes former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as asking. “Leave the ratepayers their money, and let them make their own charitable choices.”

We’re not talking about a tremendous amount of money here. According to the AP, Dominion included $1.37 million of donations in the cost of service it charged to customers in 2o11 and 2012. State Corporation Commission staff recently filed testimony saying that Dominion should not be able to pass along $3.3 million in donations from 2013 and 2014. Dominion spokesman David Botkins says the company will file a detailed rebuttal later this month.

Many of those donations may be entirely legitimate, tied at least tangentially to the business of generating, distributing and conserving electric power. I can’t get exercised about the $7,500 donation  to the Peninsular Council for Workforce Development, cited in the AP article, even if CEO Matthew James also serves as a Portsmouth delegate to the General Assembly. As a major employer, Dominion has as much a stake in workforce development as any company in Virginia. (Although I would be interested to know if Dominion donated to other workforce councils in its service territory.) And, frankly, from the rate payer perspective, we’re talking chump change here. There are much bigger issues to worry about, like how rapidly to phase in renewable energy sources, where to build electric transmission lines, whether or not to build a nuclear power plant, and so on.

But the controversy isn’t about the impact on ratepayers. It’s about the political clout of the most influential corporation in Virginia politics. Dominion shouldn’t charge ratepayers for actions designed to influence legislation effecting ratepayers.

Katherine Bond, director of public policy for Dominion, told the AP that the company feels it “is important to support the communities in which we do business.” But the Appalachian School of Pharmacy, located in Oakwood, Va., is not a community served by Dominion. The company’s motive in donating the money might have been pure as the driven snow — but no one is going to believe it.

Dominion would do itself a big favor by tightening its guidelines for billing ratepayers. Limiting donations to communities within the company’s service area would be one place to start. If the company doesn’t police itself, legislators might be tempted to draft a law limiting such donations — and those limits could well be stricter than any limits the company would want.

Update: Dominion has issued a response to the AP story. Here’s the  meat of it: “Some perspective about the source of funding for those investments is important. In 2014, our company donated $18.5 million to charitable causes; the vast majority of these funds were provided directly by shareholders. In fact, in our latest filing with the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC), we stated that only about $740,000 of these donations were supported by rates collected from our Dominion Virginia Power electric customers in the Commonwealth. That’s just 4 percent of the total.”

I have posted the full response in the comments and highlighted it in yellow.

Alpha Natural Resources: Running Wrong

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia (Photo by Scott Elmquist)

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia
(Photo by Scott Elmquist)

 By Peter Galuszka

Four years ago, coal titan Alpha Natural Resources, one of Virginia’s biggest political donors, was riding high.

It was spending $7.1 billion to buy Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm based in Richmond that had compiled an extraordinary record for safety and environmental violations and fines. Its management practices culminated in a huge mine blast on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, according to three investigations.

Bristol-based Alpha, founded in 2002, had coveted Massey’s rich troves of metallurgical and steam coal as the industry was undergoing a boom phase. It would get about 1,400 Massey workers to add to its workforce of 6,600 but would have to retrain them in safety procedures through Alpha’s “Running Right” program.

Now, four years later, Alpha is in a fight for its life. Its stock – trading at a paltry 55 cents per share — has been delisted by the New York Stock Exchange. After months of layoffs, the firm is preparing for a bankruptcy filing. It is negotiating with its loan holders and senior bondholders to help restructure its debt.

Alpha is the victim of a severe downturn in the coal industry as cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling has flooded the market and become a favorite of electric utilities. Alpha had banked on Masset’s huge reserves of met coal to sustain it, but global economic strife, especially in China, has dramatically cut demand for steel. Some claim there is a “War on Coal” in the form of tough new regulations, although others claim the real reason is that coal can’t face competition from other fuel sources.

Alpha’s big fall has big implications for Virginia in several arenas:

(1) Alpha is one of the largest political donors in the state, favoring Republicans. In recent years, it has spent $2,256,617 on GOP politicians and PACS, notably on such influential politicians and Jerry Kilgore and Tommy Norment, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. It also has spent $626,558 on Democrats.

In 2014-2015, it was the ninth largest donor in the state. Dominion was ahead among corporations, but Alpha beat out such top drawer bankrollers as Altria, Comcast and Verizon. The question now is whether a bankruptcy trustee will allow Alpha to continue its funding efforts.

(2) How will Alpha handle its pension and other benefits for its workers? If it goes bankrupt, it will be in the same company as Patriot Coal which is in bankruptcy for the second time in the past several years. Patriot was spun off by Peabody, the nation’s largest coal producer, which wanted to get out of the troubled Central Appalachian market to concentrate on more profitable coalfields in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Midwest.

Critics say that Patriot was a shell firm set up by Peabody so it could skip out of paying health, pension and other benefits to the retired workers it used to employ. The United Mine Workers of America has criticized a Patriot plan to pay its top five executives $6.4 million as it reorganizes its finances.

(3) Coal firms that have large surface mines, as Alpha does, may not be able to meet the financial requirements to clean up the pits as required by law. Alpha has used mountaintop removal practices in the Appalachians in which hundreds of feet of mountains are ripped apart by explosives and huge drag lines to get at coal. They also have mines in Wyoming that also involve removing millions of tons of overburden.

Like many coal firms, Alpha has used “self-bonding” practices to guarantee mine reclamation. In this, the companies use their finances as insurance that they will clean up. If not, they must post cash. Wyoming has given Alpha until Aug. 24 to prove it has $411 million for reclamation.

(4) The health problems of coalfield residents continue unabated. According to a Newsweek report, Kentucky has more cancer rates than any other state. Tobacco smoking as a lot to do with it, but so does exposure to carcinogenic compounds that are released into the environment by mountaintop removal. This also affects people living in Virginia and West Virginia. In 2014, Alpha was fined $27.5 million by federal regulators for illegal discharges of toxic materials into hundreds of streams. It also must pay $200 million to clean up the streams.

The trials of coal companies mean bad news for Virginia and its sister states whose residents living near shut-down mines will still be at risk from them. As more go bust or bankrupt, the bill for their destructive practices will have to borne by someone else.

After digging out the Appalachians for about 150 years, the coal firms have never left coalfield residents well off. Despite its coal riches, Kentucky ranks 45th in the country for wealth. King Coal could have helped alleviate that earlier, but is in a much more difficult position to do much now. Everyday folks with be the ones paying for their legacy.

Renewable Energy: A Tale of Two Virginias

Apologies to Mr. Dickens

Apologies to Mr. Dickens

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias – at least when it comes to renewable energy.

One is the state’s traditional political and business elite, including Dominion Resources and large manufacturers, the State Corporation Commission and others.

They insist that the state must stick with big, base-loaded electricity generating plants like nuclear and natural gas – not so much solar and wind –to ensure that prices for business are kept low. Without this, recruiting firms may be difficult.

The other is a collection of huge, Web-based firms that state recruiters would give an eyetooth to snag. They include Amazon, Google, Facebook and others that tend to have roots on the West Coast where thinking about energy is a bit different.

Besides the Internet, what they have in common is that they all vow to use 100 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources. What’s more, to achieve this goal, all are investing millions in their own renewable power plants. They are bypassing traditional utilities like Dominion which have been sluggish in moving to wind and solar.

So, you have a strange dichotomy. Older business groups are saying that the proposed federal Clean Power Plan should be throttled because it would rely on expensive renewables that would drive away new business. Meanwhile, the most successful and younger Web-based firms obviously aren’t buying that argument.

I have a story about this in this week’s Style Weekly.

In Virginia, the trend is evidenced by Amazon Web Services, which sells time on its cloud-computing network to other firms. It is joining a Spanish company, Iberdola Renewables LLC, in building a 208-megawatt wind farm on 22,000 acres in northeastern North Carolina, just as few miles from the Virginia border. Three weeks earlier, on June 18, Amazon announced it plans a 170-megawatt solar farm in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore.

Dominion, which has renewable projects in California, Utah and Indiana and the beginnings of some small ones in Virginia, says it is not part of the projects. It could possibly get electricity indirectly from them. Amazon’s power will be sold on regional power grids to business and utilities.

When they complete such sales, the Net-focused firms will get renewable energy certificates that can be used to show that they have put as much renewable energy into the electricity grid as they have used, says Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

This will be especially important in Northern Virginia where there are masses of computer server farms used by Amazon and others. These centers used 500 megawatts of power in 2012 and demand is expected to double by 2017. Also, for years, the region has hosted such a large Internet infrastructure that at least half, perhaps 70 percent, of the Net’s traffic goes through there.

Part of the back story of this remarkable and utility-free push for renewables is that environmental groups are shaming modern, forward-looking firms like Amazon to do it.

Amazon Web Services was the target of criticism last year when Greenpeace surveyed how firms were embracing renewable energy. The report stated that the firm “provides the infrastructure for much of the Internet” but “remains among the dirtiest and least transparent companies” that is “far behind its major competitors.”

Dominion also got bashed in the report. Greenpeace says, “Unfortunately, Dominion’s generation mix is composed of almost entirely dirty energy sources.” Coal, nuclear and natural gas make up the vast majority of its power sources.

Its efforts to move to renewable sources have been modest at best. In regulatory filings, Dominion officials have complained that renewable energy, especially wind, is costly and unreliable although they include it in their long-term planning.

Dominion has plans for 20-megawatt solar farm near Remington in Fauquier County and is working on a wind farm on 2,600 acres the utility owns in southwestern Virginia. It has renewable projects out-of-state in California, Utah and Indiana. The output is a fraction of what Amazon plans in the region.

In a pilot offshore wind project, Dominion had planned on building two wind turbines capable of producing 12 megawatts of power in the waters of Virginia Beach. It later shut down the project, saying new studies revealed it would cost too much. It says it might continue with a scaled down project if it got extra funding, such as federal subsidies.

The utility says it must build more natural gas plants and perhaps build a third nuclear unit at its North Anna power plant to make sure that affordable electricity is always available for its customers.

As Amazon announced its new renewal projects, Greenpeace has changed its attitude about the company. Now it praises Amazon for its initiatives in Virginia and North Carolina. “I would like to think we have pushed Amazon in the right direction,” says David Pomerantz, a Greenpeace spokesman and analyst. He adds that Amazon has some work to do in making its energy policies “more transparent.”

One unresolved issue is that two neighboring states, North Carolina and Maryland, have “renewable portfolio standards” that require that set percentages of power produced there come from renewables. West Virginia had such a standard but has dropped it. In Virginia, the standard is voluntary, meaning that Dominion is under no legal obligation to move to solar or wind. It also gives the SCC, the power rate regulator, authority to nix new power proposals because they might cost consumers too much, providing Dominion with a handy excuse to move slowly on renewables.

Another matter, says Pomerantz, is whether Virginia’s legislators will enact “renewable energy friendly policies” or watch hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable project investments go to other states, such as North Carolina.

So, you have a separate reality. Traditionalists are saying that expensive renewables are driving away new business, while the most attractive new businesses are so unimpressed with traditionalist thinking that they are making big investments to promote renewable energy independently.

It isn’t the first like this has happened.