Bill to Expand (Pack?) SCC a First Test of Change

by Steve Haner

Legislation to increase the size of the State Corporation Commission from three to five judges, giving majority Democrats a chance to pack the panel with their appointees, may provide the first real test of how much things have changed in New Blue Virginia.

Freshman Delegate Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax, introduced House Bill 1297, which is on the docket for the full meeting of the House Labor and Commerce meeting Thursday afternoon. One of the three existing SCC judges, Patricia West, could be re-elected this session and is not expected to be, giving the new majority one seat to fill by March. As introduced, Helmer’s bill creates two more seats to be filled at some future special or regular session.

Energy issues, and the SCC’s perceived hesitance to charge forward and save the planet from climate catastrophe, are front of mind with many of the new (and some of the old) legislators. But a reconstituted SCC could also change direction on insurance, banking, corporate governance, pipelines and other areas of regulation under its purview. Its key role on those is often overlooked.

Once the full committee rises, in a meeting of the newly constituted energy subcommittee of House Labor and Commerce, more than twenty energy bills will face their first hearing. The meeting will probably start late and run long, but Friday’s dawn may mark a new green energy age, at least in the House of Delegates.   

How will we know? Watch House Bill 1607, for one, among the worst introduced by anybody on any energy issue. It is yet another attack on the role of the SCC in protecting energy consumers from unreasonable and imprudent generation projects. It basically orders the SCC to accept Dominion Energy Virginia’s proposal for a massive offshore wind project and to pass the cost of it, whatever it turns out to be, on to us. Even customers who have escaped Dominion and found alternative suppliers would have to pay their share of this $8 (or $9 or perhaps $10) billion investment, plus that much or more in financing costs and profits.

There is a companion bill in the Senate, Senate Bill 998. Both were introduced January 17, right on the bill deadline, a standard play for the utility in the days when the General Assembly was friendly territory. Because the offshore wind proposal is a high priority for current Governor Ralph Northam, and the Hampton Road maritime industry is salivating for piece of the action, the “new” General Assembly may behave just like the “old” General Assembly and sacrifice consumers on the altar of climate alarmism and economic development boodle.

Other, broader pieces of “clean energy” legislation also put heavy thumbs on the scale in favor of the offshore project, which has replaced the proposed North Anna Three as Dominion’s largest capital dream. Even if those targeted offshore wind bills fail, odds are the Assembly will do something to tip the balance in the utility’s favor and against consumers.

There are also bills in the subcommittee which are nightmares for the utility. Delegates Lee Ware (R-Powhatan) and Mark Keam (D-Vienna) have bills creating full customer retail choice for electricity, and Ware is back with a failed 2019 effort to protect consumers from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline costs.

House Bill 167 would give the SCC several tests to use in determining whether it is fair to charge ratepayers for the construction cost of the stalled natural gas pipeline. A similar bill passed the House in 2019 only to fail in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. Dominion Energy, so eager to strip the SCC’s consumer protection powers over offshore wind, will likely stand up to argue (once again) that the SCC has all the authority it needs over pipelines. Its lobbyists will do so with straight faces.

Missing from the subcommittee docket is Del. Ware’s excellent bill on the coming 2021 review of Dominion’s rates and earnings, House Bill 969. The eventual fate of that will also be a key test of whether anything has really changed in favor of consumers. Presumably the subcommittee will meet at least once more on House bills.

So far, this discussion has focused on the House, and the signs of change in the Senate are harder to find. As in, there aren’t any. Earlier this week, as reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and elsewhere, Dominion crushed a Senate bill to prohibit the massive flow of campaign contributions it has used to reinforce its lobbying efforts. The same panel went on to vote against limiting donations from all sources to $20,000 per election cycle.

Dominion’s legislative protector Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, is back as majority leader and is chairing Senate Commerce and Labor again, and the subcommittee he appointed for energy bills includes plenty of legislators who have backed the utility’s bills in prior years. Dominion’s now 28-member lobby team is bolstered this year with former senator and C&L chairman John Watkins, who was briefly a candidate for the SCC seat that went to West.

The other key addition to that full regimental combat team of lobbyists is one Charles Jackson, who also represents the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and was deep in Democratic campaign activities in recent years.  What was the House Commerce and Labor Committee is now (drum roll) the Labor and Commerce Committee.  The change means something.

There is a lot of focus on former legislators cashing in as lobbyists, but as this former campaign hatchet man can testify, that’s not a bad path into a lobbying career either. Bets against Dominion in the 2020 session will remain against the odds, especially in the Senate.