by Steve Haner
Divide and conquer is an ancient tactic. Virginia’s residential natural gas customers were just divided from industrial and commercial users, and those big users then threw homeowners under the bus. Without blinking an eye.
House Bill 1257 had passed the House of Delegates on an almost party line vote, with two Democrats joining the 52 Republicans in support. As it passed it applied to all users of natural gas, whether supplied by municipal utilities or public service corporations, and also extended to certain propane customers.
It created a right to use gas, restricted local government authority to prevent it, and spelled out the steps any local government that owned a gas utility would have to take to get out of the business. But almost all of that disappeared in a puff of methane as a substitute to the bill appeared Tuesday afternoon in the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.
All the provisions dealing with the rights to use gas were stripped out. References to propane were stripped out. All that remained were the provisions protecting customers of a municipal provider, and those protections only apply to industrial or commercial users. A reference to “any class of customers” was stripped out.
The substitute is not posted yet but look at the House version and simply delete everything above line 48, and on line 49 replace “any class of customers” with industrial and commercial. From that point on the language is the same, it appears.
As I read it, as long as a city such as Richmond, which has made its plans to eliminate natural gas plain, maintains service to its industrial and commercial customers, its tens of thousands of residential customers are just one city council vote away from losing their gas service. And many reside outside the city in Hanover, Chesterfield and Henrico Counties.
Richmond is one of three local Virginia governments running a gas works, the others being Danville and Charlottesville.
The substitute was endorsed from the podium by the Virginia Manufacturers Association, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and other large users. The representative of the propane dealers was left at the podium asking for confirmation that residential propane users were not protected any more, and Chairman Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) replied: “You’re out of the bill.”
The patron of the bill, Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, welcomed the substitute, apparently the work of one of the Richmond senators, Joe Morrissey (D). Kilgore assured Petersen he could get the gutted version approved by a majority in the full house and move the bill on to Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) for signature. Petersen, at least recognizing there might be an explosion out in the public, indicated he’d rather see the bill end up in a conference committee.
“Natural gas might be just a bit more important now than it was seven days ago,” he added.
Environmental lobbyists probably had not seen the substitute until the last minute, based on their reactions, but they warmed to it rapidly. You had the big users and those who consider natural gas a dangerous poison side by side in support. The Sierra Club called it “a much improved version of the bill,” adding that the bill is still a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
The problem that exists is a nationwide effort to stop anybody from using natural gas for anything, based on the mythical climate crisis. Earlier in the same meeting Tuesday, the Democrats on the committee killed House Bill 1267, an effort to reverse the 2021 bill that tied Virginia’s automotive industry to the emission standards of California. That is a move to eliminate all gasoline and diesel powered general use cars and trucks because of that same mythical climate crisis.
The death of House Bill 1257 was expected, although obviously some Democrats were at least a little concerned that major industries might abandon their Virginia facilities and take away tens of thousands of jobs. This tactic of splitting the issue, and abandoning of the millions of Virginians using gas and propane in their homes, or in businesses so small they don’t get commercial rates, was an unexpected twist.
The substitute bill could die now on the Senate floor. It could be rewritten yet again. If it makes it back over to the House of Delegates, that possible conference committee is a possible path back to a reasonable bill. But the division has been created and exploited.
The message to average consumers of energy in any form – electricity, natural gas, propane, gasoline – is that many major players roaming the halls of the General Assembly looking out for number one will simply leave you high and dry once their needs are taken care off. You are on your own.