Keep the Politicians Honest, Too

Dominion Virginia Power is coming under fire from all sides as it tries to balance reliability, cost and sustainability.

Dominion Virginia Power is coming under fire from all sides as it tries to balance reliability, cost and sustainability.

“Keep the big boys honest,” was the campaign tag-line of populist “Howlin” Henry Howell when he very nearly won his bid for the governorship in 1973. By “big boys,” he was referring to executives of VEPCO, a predecessor company to Dominion Virginia Power. Four decades later, it appears that Howell’s rhetoric is coming back in style.

As the Associated Press summarizes:

Two out of four GOP primary contestants are openly hostile to Dominion and want to ban the company from making campaign donations. An insurgent Democrat is indicating he’ll make the company’s broad political influence a significant campaign talking point. …

“Somebody has to drag these vampires into the sunlight,” said GOP candidate Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner who battled Dominion over eminent domain issues. Riggleman had a Capitol news conference Tuesday to pledge support for longshot legislation that would prohibit regulated monopolies from making campaign contributions. …

Republican Corey Stewart, a one-time Trump campaign chairman in Virginia, said if elected he would support the ban on donations from regulated monopolies as well and would look at other areas to curb the company’s political influence. “They have virtually every member of the General Assembly in their pocket,” Stewart said. …

On the Democratic side, former Congressman Tom Perriello is also making Dominion’s influence a campaign issue. “Tom believes our political system has become too rigged in favor of big corporations and special interests and that Virginians suffer when the very politicians charged with regulating monopolies accept campaign contributions from them,” his spokesman Ian Sams said.

Is Dominion worried? Spokesman David Botkins sounds confident the company can weather the latest storm: “Our 2.5 million customers tell us they are very, very happy with their low rates, superb reliability, cleaner air, and an energy independent Virginia.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Bashing the electric company is a time-honored tradition in the United States, and Virginia is no exception. Dominion Virginia Power is in politicians’ cross-hairs for multiple reasons. Environmentalists say the company is moving too slowly in adopting renewable fuels, and they say it should spend more to clean up its coal ash ponds. On the flip side, electric customers charge that a freeze in base rates negotiated a year ago locks in excess profits. Then landowners in the path of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a project managed by parent company Dominion, as well as proposed new electric transmission lines, are up in arms. Meanwhile, there’s no denying that Dominion enjoys enormous clout in the General Assembly and the McAuliffe administration. It should surprise no one that Dominion has become a target of populist wrath.

As the debate unfolds, however, voters should bear in mind that Dominion, like Appalachian Power Co. and Virginia’s electric co-ops, must strike a balance between three broad goals: keeping rates low, keeping the lights on, and transitioning to cleaner fuels. Accomplishing all three requires trade-offs, making it impossible to fully satisfy all constituencies. If you add a fourth goal — promoting economic development — the tradeoffs become even more complex.

Dominion’s No. 1 priority is keeping the lights on. Let’s face it, nothing enrages people more than going without electricity for more than an hour or two. But ensuring reliability does not come free. By burying vulnerable distribution lines underground, for instance, the company can reduce the number and length of outages due to storms. That costs hundreds of millions of dollars, driving rates higher. How much are electricity customers willing to pay for an additional increment of reliability?

Similarly, the company could move more aggressively to embrace solar and wind power, but the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources threatens the stability of local distribution circuits. Before integrating renewables on a large scale, Dominion is proceeding with a series of small pilot projects to test the impact on local distribution lines. If you value reliability, you’re probably happy with the approach. If your top priority is combating climate change, you’re probably not.

Meanwhile, the company has been restructuring its transmission grid in response to federal clear air mandates — first to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic minerals, and more recently to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Meeting those goals has required a massive shift from coal to natural gas and renewables. That entails not only building new power plants in new locations and importing electricity via wholesale markets from outside the state, it requires erecting new transmission lines to handle the re-routed electricity flows. Landowners understandably don’t like looking at electric transmission lines. But you can’t stick with the old electric grid and also have clean energy.

That’s not to say things can’t be done differently. Arguably, Dominion Virginia Power cut a sweet deal for itself when the legislatures froze its base rate. Arguably, the company could be more cooperative in allowing homeowners and small businesses to work with third-party providers of clean energy sources. Arguably, Virginia’s eminent domain laws could treat landowners more justly. Arguably, the system could be tweaked in many ways. But it always comes back to setting priorities and making tradeoffs. There is no way to satisfy everyone.

Let’s hope Virginia’s candidates for higher office keep that simple truth in mind as we enter the campaign silly season.

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16 responses to “Keep the Politicians Honest, Too

  1. So you open with a synopsis of three candidates bashing Dominion for buying the General Assembly and transition to a defense of Dominion priorities and actions, leaving unaddressed the issue of undue influence over the General Assembly. If this were a high school paper you would have received an “F” as you didn’t support your initial question or thesis.

    That being said, it is not simply that “populists” are fed up with Dominion’s actions both on the ground and in the General Assembly; they are also fed up with the oh so pompous (and thin-skinned) members of both houses that readily accept tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions while asserting that the donations have no impact on the bills they patron or support. You want prime examples look no further than Dominion’s chief waterboys, Del. Kilgore and Senator Saslaw.

    Those two then recruit bucket bearing stooges like Del. Habeeb and Sen. Stanley to actually carry the water. Those stooges when questioned about Dominion’s influence react with all the grace of a teenage prima dona. You want proof, review the tape of this week’s Senate Commerce and Labor Hearing regarding SB1110. The reactions of both Sen. Stanley and Sen. Cosgrove were beyond the pale and if my sources are correct, the portion on tape is mild compared to Sen. Stanley screaming conniption fit in the hallway after the the hearing.

    Of course that is merely the tip of the iceberg in these matters and we could have a lengthy debate on other singular aspects such as Dominion actively lobbying the support of select Delegates for HB1766/SB1110 while fervently denying they support or have anything to do with the bills when the speak with the opposing Delegate in the room next door, wherein both conversations are heard by the same group of eavesdroppers.

    Back to Sen. Stanley, somebody should probably remind him that when he signed the papers to run for office, took the oath and assumed the mantle of office, he also assumed the slings and arrows of our discontent that come with that position. Publicly attacking speakers at a public hearing from the dais much less making a spectacle of oneself in the hallways of the Capitol is probably not helpful to ones chances at re-election.

  2. well I don’t think it is ‘bashing” to prohibit Dominion from donating to campaigns.. nor do I think it is ‘bashing” to deny them the power of Eminent Domain unless for a regulated public necessity – and not a for-profit venture.

    I think I’d also outlaw particularly egregious self-serving PR..

    😉

  3. Campaign contributions and lobbying expenses should not be recoverable expenses for setting rates for a public utility. But any company should be free to lobby or make campaign contributions.

    • TMT–neither of these items are included in customer rates; they are shareholder-borne costs.

      • That’s my understanding. And it’s true in most states.

        But I still maintain that any company, organization or person has the right to lobby and, in Virginia, make disclosed campaign contributions. I’d like to see more transparency in lobbying. I think anyone or any entity that is using a paid lobbyist – either in-house or a third party–should be required to summarize and disclose on the Internet what they are advocating and the contents of their advocacy. I’d rather know what the Sierra Club and Dominion are advocating. I might then decide to support or oppose.

  4. I have a proposal. Time and date stamps for all transactions and donors and recipients for all money and send automatically to people who have registered their emails or phone text.

    so we know when money is being “delivered” and we know who is getting it and that rule would apply to all PACs also.

    the fact that the General Assembly will do nothing – as Don says – makes the Va GA among the most corrupt in the country and Dominion’s own actions tell us how they feel about it.. they’re full willing participants when they could easily take a principled stand and either outright refuse to do money or to do it with full transparency – no matter what the GA can’t bring itself to do. They can do that right now with VPAP if they so choose.

    • We have a constitutional right to contact and lobby government for “redress of grievances” and to make campaign contributions. We don’t have a right to do it under a basket. I like the idea of push notifications of donations to people who have requested them.

  5. For those curious, here are the most current VPAP numbers for sitting Senators (includes previous offices and candidacies)

    $14,227 Barker for Senate – George
    $3,250 Black for Delegate – Richard
    $6,500 Black for Senate – Dick
    $7,700 Carrico for Delegate – Charles
    $14,000 Carrico for Senate – Bill
    $1,000 Chafin for Delegate – Ben
    $9,500 Chafin for Senate – Ben
    $4,500 Chase for Senate – Amanda
    $16,150 Cosgrove for Delegate – John
    $7,000 Cosgrove for Senate – John
    $15,692 Dance for Delegate – Rosalyn
    $10,000 Dance for Senate – Rosalyn
    $20,000 Deeds for Attorney General – Creigh
    $2,450 Deeds for Delegate – Creigh
    $60,000 Deeds for Governor – Creigh
    $27,250 Deeds for Senate – Creigh
    $1,500 DeSteph for Delegate – Bill
    $2,000 DeSteph for Senate – Bill
    $6,000 Dunnavant for Senate – Siobhan
    $7,500 Ebbin for Delegate – Adam
    $4,000 Ebbin for Senate – Adam
    $9,500 Edwards for Attorney General – John
    $27,000 Edwards for Senate – John
    $8,000 Favola for Senate – Barbara
    $23,500 Hanger for Senate – Emmett
    $47,500 Howell for Senate – Janet
    $10,500 Lewis for Delegate – Lynwood
    $6,500 Lewis for Senate – Lynwood
    $31,000 Locke for Senate – Mamie
    $31,950 Lucas for Senate – Louise
    $6,500 Marsden for Delegate – David
    $16,500 Marsden for Senate – David
    $500 Mason for Delegate – Monty
    $1,000 Mason for Senate – Monty
    $37,674 McClellan for Delegate – Jennifer
    $2,250 McDougle for Delegate – Ryan
    $45,000 McDougle for Senate – Ryan
    $1,500 McPike for Senate – Jeremy
    $20,500 Newman for Senate – Stephen
    $107,740 Norment for Senate – Thomas
    $30,000 Obenshain for Attorney General – Mark
    $21,000 Obenshain for Senate – Mark
    $500 Peake for Senate – Mark
    $3,500 Petersen for Delegate – Chapman
    $2,750 Petersen for Lt Governor – Chap
    $16,269 Petersen for Senate – Chap
    $14,575 Reeves for Senate – Bryce
    $22,500 Ruff for Senate – Frank
    $298,008 Saslaw for Senate – Richard
    $32,919 Spruill for Delegate – Lionell Sr.
    $2,500 Spruill Sr. for Senate – Lionell
    $19,500 Stanley for Senate – Bill
    $20,750 Stuart for Senate – Richard
    $4,000 Sturtevant for Senate – Glen
    $10,500 Surovell for Delegate – Scott A
    $2,072 Surovell for Senate – Scott
    $15,000 Vogel for Senate – Jill
    $2,250 Wagner for Delegate – Frank
    $79,735 Wagner for Senate – Frank
    $3,500 Wexton for Senate – Jennifer
    $1,276,661

    • what you’re looking at is why incumbents win. Imagine yourself a challenger trying to raise money and the incumbent already has 10, 20, 30K ……..
      Donations from Energy, Natural Resources
      more than 3 million dollars to 140 seats.

      that’s more than 20K per seat.. and this is just
      the energy sector that includes Dominion

      Amount Donor
      $1,148,763 Coal Mining/Processing
      $1,119,629 Electric Utilities
      $544,391 Fuel Distributor/Home Heating Oil
      $518,136 Natural Gas

      http://www.vpap.org/money/donors-industry-totals/6/?recip_type=all&year=2016

      • What I’m looking at is why they lie about the intentions behind many bills that cause them, when called out, to act out.

        This link will take you to the Committee Meeting:

        http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/99484417

        At roughly the 1:30 mark, Sen. Stanley introduces SB1110, at roughly teh 1:48 mark he begins his defensive rant, followed by Sen. Cosgrove. Its too bad there isn’t video of his purported hallway rant.

  6. Neither of those bills that has Mom agitated has anything to do with Dominion. They do not change the situation for the Skiffes Creek transmission line across the James River, nor do they change the rules for any other power line which is not 138 kv. Frankly I wish very much that they did and I’m disappointed that Dominion is leaving APCO to swing in the wind on this – but perhaps the bills will pass. Stanley’s outburst was a bit of trial lawyer theatrics but the show is always good when he’s at the podium.

    As to the bigger picture, speaking as someone who remembers Henry Howell and got to interact with him a bit, mainly after his statewide campaigns, if his spirit still roams the capitol and is watching the situation today, well, that final scene in Poltergeist comes to mind.

    • On the face of it that is correct, however it is a rather facile interpretation of what is likely going and ignores the endgame. The legislation essentially allows the camel’s nose under the tent and establishes the basis for immediate or future amendment. Similarly it provides for the courts establishing new decisions in future cases, decisions that could gut or override the Skiffs Creek case. To ignore those potentials is to ignore the way the General Assembly has historically operated.

      As to Sen. Stanley’s behavior, if it were limited to the public portion at the hearing I might agree, but his temper tantrum after the hearing lends me to believe that he is simply a petty, thin-skinned politician with an oversized ego and entitlement complex, putting him in the good company of most in Richmond.

  7. Don’t see this as “bashing” Dominion. They are big, rich and politically powerful. They should be scrutinized like any Virginia company, especially so since they have monopoly powers.

    Dominion’s donations mean a friendly legislature. They did Dominion’s bidding to deregulate and then re-regulate when conditions were more favorable to the utility. Freezing rate bases is also questionable since the rationale for doing so — the Clean Power Plan — is DOA with Donald Trump.

    Riggleman is a critic because he dealt with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. There are many like him.

    Stewart is a critic because of coal ash ponds at Possum Point. Many like him, too, including the Maryland Attorney General’s office.

    Perriello is a critic because he is a new kind of Virginia politician.

  8. “Complex tradeoffs … Arguably, the system could be tweaked in many ways. But it always comes back to setting priorities and making tradeoffs. There is no way to satisfy everyone. “

    There never is … but the only people being satisfied here in Virginia are the Dominion Resources people and that is too bad. The post fairly cites both sides of the issues confronting Dominion and Virginia as the state considers the switch away from fossil fuels. But Dominion Resources, the owner of our primary utility, is fully invested in natural gas. Dominion’s ‘all in for gas’ scheme includes a $1.5B joint venture in a WV natural gas processing facility, one of the largest underground natural gas storage systems in the United States, and 7,800 miles of pipeline in six states. Planned investments include the $4B Cove Point LNG export facility, the $5 billion Atlantic Coast pipeline and $2.3 billion for two natural gas fired electricity plants, with 2 more on the boards for the 2020’s.

    While the country is changing, Dominion is holding onto their central monopoly utility structure, and as long as that hold is maintained our energy future has a very good chance including payments for ‘stranded assets’. Even Dominion won’t be satisfied then.

    As a recent report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) concludes, “significant changes are occurring” in the way we generate and use electricity … regardless of national regulations.“ They are happening because it is time to rebuild our aging energy infrastructure. They are happening because the technology is now available to create a new kind of energy system, and because this new system, build with new resources, will protect our air and our water as well as our atmosphere. The new system will be both more reliable and cheaper, will expand the economy creating more jobs and investment than the fossil economy can, and won’t require the questionable use of eminent domain or the breaking of VOF conservation covenants.

    Is a denial of the ACP is the only possible way to change Dominion’s outdated view of our energy future?

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