From The Intercept
THE STUNNING VICTORY on Tuesday by Virginia Democrats, seizing control of both chambers of the state legislature and bringing the state under unified party control, sets up a new confrontation with a powerful adversary: Dominion Energy.
Dominion Energy, the privately owned utility company, has long cast a shadow across the state, buying favor in both parties as the most generous donor in state history, writing its own lax regulatory rules, and funneling consumer bills into billions of dollars of investor dividends and executive compensation.
The election results mark a turning point that will likely transform into a brutal legislative fight in 2020 over the future of energy policy, corporate consolidation, and climate change. Virginia Democrats were once just as loyal to the energy giant as Republicans, dutifully passing nine-figure tax breaks year after year for Dominion, alongside other giveaways directly requested by the company's lobbyists. Dominion lobbyists have crushed attempts to allow consumers to use "net metering," or the use of rooftop solar power to send electricity back to the grid in exchange for credits, and passed laws specifically crafted to dodge limits on pollution by coal power plants.
Over the last two election cycles, however, an increasing number of General Assembly Democrats have declared that they will reject campaign donations from Dominion and Appalachian Power, a subsidiary of another utility giant, AEP. Since 2017, the Democratic Party of Virginia has rejected Dominion money as well. In order to force the company to return money to consumers and comply with the demand to eventually generate all of its energy from carbon-free sources, Democratic legislators say they need to break free of Dominion's political grip.
Gov. Ralph Northam has called for standards this year that would require utilities to eventually source 100 percent renewable energy over the next three decades. Now, with his first Democratic legislature, that may finally be feasible and enforced through law.
Clean Virginia, an advocacy group, boasted after the results last night that nearly 50 candidates who rejected Dominion money won elections, including many running in competitive seats.
"What's important for progressive leaders in Virginia of all political affiliations to commit to is not allowing Dominion to write the clean energy script to benefit its own profit motives," said Cassady Craighill, a spokesperson for Clean Virginia. "Virginia could reach Governor Northam's ambitious and necessary clean energy goals lightyears faster if we didn't rely on one monopoly with a captive customer base to implement it."
Delegate Mark Keam, D-Vienna, a moderate incumbent in the legislature who adopted the pledge to reject Dominion money, sounded a note of caution. "It's not enough to just have Democrats in charge," Keam said. "It's really important that Democrats who care about climate crisis who are willing to take a risk and do something big and bold are in charge of drafting our policies."
The raw power and influence of Dominion is hard to overstate. President Donald Trump's current attorney general, William Barr, is a former member of the Dominion board, and was paid $1.2 million in cash and stock for his time with the firm. Dominion paid over $1 million to SKDKnickerbocker, the Democratic consultancy led by Anita Dunn, Obama's former communications director, to help advertise its controversial Atlantic Coast gas pipeline. In every year that the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit campaign finance disclosure watchdog, has kept records, Dominion has been the largest or second largest corporate donor in state politics.
The company also strategically hands out cash to nonprofit groups and civic leaders to curry favor with policymakers. One local leader of a Virginia Boys & Girls Club who testified in favor of Dominion's Atlantic Coast pipeline, for example, received a $10,000 grant from the company in 2018.
This year, in its capacity as a corporate donor, Dominion, along with its executives and lobbyists, handed out over $2.6 million in Virginia elections, largely benefitting the GOP. They also gave significant donations to some Virginia Democrats, including current Minority Leader state Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Alexandria, a close ally of Dominion.
In a statement to The Intercept, the company defended its political giving record and business practices.
"Sound energy policy isn't a partisan issue. It's the result of conversation with stakeholders on both sides of the aisle, identifying problems and analyzing possible solutions to get the best outcome for the Commonwealth, customers and the environment," said Dominion spokesperson Rayhan Daudani. "Over the course of our company's 100-year history, we've had an excellent record of working with both parties to meet our customers' needs, and we look forward to working with the newly elected and returning legislators in the coming session."
The attempt to rein in the power of Dominion, which serves utility markets in Idaho, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming, comes as politicians across the country are contemplating the challenges posed by monopoly power and privately held energy utilities.