By Steve Haner

Renewable energy donor Clean Virginia Fund was the biggest winner in Tuesday’s Democratic primaries, going head to head against Dominion Energy Virginia in several nomination contests and often winning.  Senior incumbent Democrats with strong Green New Deal voting records went down to defeat, because good wasn’t good enough.

Come Election Day in November, the contrast between Democrats and Republicans on Virginia’s energy future will be as stark as possible.  Quite simply, the use of natural gas within the Commonwealth is on the ballot.  Dominion’s recent announcement that it plans a new gas generation facility in Chesterfield County to bolster electricity reliability only poured fuel on the fire (pardon the pun).

The Charlottesville based Clean Virginia, which now also engages in lobbying and intervenes in State Corporation Commission regulatory matters, is funded by Michael Bills.  He and his wife, Sonjia Smith, form quite a power couple (a second pun.)  So far in this election cycle, with the fall elections still to come, Clean Virginia Fund and Smith combined have donated $7.3 million, more than 99% of it to Democrats.

Dominion is not far behind at $6.9 million donated so far in this cycle, but only $3.2 million of it has been to Democrats.  Many of them lost Tuesday to opponents backed by Clean Virginia.  They included Fairfax Senator George Barker ($230,000) and Richmond’s Joe Morrissey ($140,000.)  A late donation to a House of Delegates challenger in Virginia Beach, Susan Hippen ($110,000), also apparently was in vain.

One major Democrat incumbent who lost Tuesday, Senator Chap Peterson of Fairfax, received substantial support from Clean Virginia and no funding from Dominion this cycle.   But Smith covered that bet with a $30,000 donation of her own to Petersen’s opponent, Saddam Salim, and any question who had the greener credentials was settled by $1,000 to Salim from Jane Fonda.  Smith was Salim’s biggest donor.

In a Prince William County senate district with no incumbent and little chance for a Republican, Clean Virginia and Smith donated $783,000 to winner Jennifer Carroll Foy, who had served in the house.  Dominion’s $225,000 made it the largest donor to her failed opponent, Hala Ayala, also a former house member.

The ongoing fight between Dominion and Clean Virginia is not good news for energy consumers.  Dominion and Clean Virginia are not always on opposite sides. When they do agree, consumers usually lose.

Dominion remains deeply committed to (and committed to making its ratepayers pay for) massive offshore wind installations and thousands more Virginia acres covered with solar panels.  It was a shock to the wind and solar industrial complex when Dominion changed direction in its latest integrated resource plan and called for decades of continued reliance on natural gas to back up those intermittent energy sources. But the big bucks are still going to wind and solar.

The utility and the activist group are further apart on regulatory matters, and Clean Virginia was a key player in forcing Dominion into a compromise during the 2023 session that included several pro-consumer elements.  But the biggest regulatory problem in Virginia remains the General Assembly’s demand that Virginia charge toward an energy future with absolutely no use of any fossil fuels.

Neither Clean Virginia nor Dominion would favor those decisions now being made somewhere else, outside of the General Assembly’s tight grip.  That is why both are spending millions, with millions more to come, to buy influence over the men and women who will vote in the next session in January 2024.

What issues might that General Assembly address?

Should Clean Virginia’s favored folks control at least one chamber, forget about the past efforts to:

  • Decouple Virginia from the California Air Resources Board’s regulations on clean cars, which will force dealers to sell more and more electric vehicles until all gasoline engines are prohibited by 2035;
  • Prevent Virginia’s local governments from adopting their own local prohibitions on the use of natural gas in homes and businesses. Charlottesville and Richmond run local gas utilities, both are considering closing them, and if they are shut down gas use would also be prevented in surrounding jurisdictions tied into the same systems;
  • Further amend the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act or repeal the statutory mandates to eliminate fossil fuel use in other areas of the economy, not just the production of electricity. Under current law agriculture and construction are in the crosshairs, too.

Should Clean Virginia help Democrats take full control in both chambers, what is likely to happen?

  • That Dominion plan to keep and expand its natural gas fleet would be in jeopardy. For the remainder of his term Governor Glenn Youngkin could probably protect it, but the next governor might not;
  • Instead, expect a more watertight legislative mandate and aggressive schedule to end the use of coal, natural gas and perhaps biomass to make electricity;
  • Localities seeking to expand their own powers to ban disfavored energy sources would have the Assembly as an ally, not a roadblock;
  • If still vulnerable to state meddling, both the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Western Virginia and the pending expansion of the natural gas pipelines feeding more gas into Hampton Roads would face greater pressure;
  • The California Air Board has gone far, far beyond trying to eliminate internal combustion engines in cars and light trucks. If dictated by legislation, Virginia could also copy California’s efforts to force all-electric power tools, commercial trucks and even railroad locomotives;
  • If Youngkin overcomes the court challenge to removing Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and ending the carbon tax it imposes, opponents of reliable and affordable energy will pass new bills to reinstate the tax as soon as legally possible. Again, Youngkin might be able to hold that off, but it will confront the next governor.

The Dominion versus Clean Virginia contest over the loyalty of Democrats is a fascinating cage match.  Neither is fighting for the average Virginia consumer who wants inexpensive, reliable energy from a broad variety of sources and totally independent regulation.

First published this morning by the Thomas Jefferson Institute of Public Policy.

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17 responses to “Clean Virginia Win is Bad News for Gas Consumers”

  1. Dr. Havel nos Spine' Avatar
    Dr. Havel nos Spine’

    All serious industry analysts that I know recognize that the bulk electric system will not be viable in a zero carbon-emitting mode of operation for many, many years. This is true even before increased requirements of electrification of transportation and the substitution of electricity for natural gas-powered end-uses. Available data on fossil plant closures and load forecasts make this crystal clear — if one wants to fairly consider the data.

    Note that the transition to a zero-carbon grid will be very expensive. Its infeasibility is part of the cost. That is fact.

    Moreover, Virginia’s efforts will have little, if any, impact on future climate outcomes. Any reductions in emissions here will be more than offset by increased carbon emissions around the world. That is opinion.

    A far better path for Virginia is to spend, or be ready to spend, scarce resources on climate adaptation. Mitigation is not going to be cost effective. That is considered opinion.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Adaptation or mitigation? We don’t seem to be very good with either and history proves it.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        Flood control and shore resilience efforts are important regardless of claimed “climate change.” Forest management practices can reduce the risk of fires there. People who want to plant more trees and reduce impervious surfaces in urban areas will always have my support!

    2. WayneS Avatar

      This dovetails with some of the issues you mention in your comment:

    3. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Nevertheless, for dense rental housing, electric appliances make more sense, especially induction cooktops. Less energy, less hazard.

    4. William O'Keefe Avatar
      William O’Keefe

      This comment is spot on. If the GA wants to do the right thing which is a big if, It will repeal the VCEA, any involvement with RGGI, and give strong support for natural gas and nuclear.
      It should also send a strong message to Dominion that if it wants to continue its massive wind farm, it has to do it with investor funds; not rate payer funds.
      As time goes by, it will be ever more clear that we do not face a climate catastrophe and we can address existing climate problems by adaptation and avoiding barrier to new or improved technology.

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Barker would have probably lost his primary election in any
    event. And, as you pointed out yesterday, Morrissey was doomed from the start. That does not diminish the reality that Clean Virginia gained two more allies, but it does diminish the idea that Clean Virginia money made a significant difference in those elections.

    As I was reading your article, I came to the conclusion that
    you stated at the end. From your perspective, Virginians are caught between a rock and a hard place. For my part, I continue to find hope in the knowledge that the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (or whatever year it is) is not written in stone. If it
    becomes apparent that the goal of net zero carbon emissions cannot be met by the year in statute with reliable energy, I am confident that there will be enough clear heads in the General Assembly to extend the goal year. The problem, of course, is whether that decision, if needed, will be made in time to avert major problems.

  3. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    The big winner on the Republican side was Governor Youngkin, who endorsed in about ten races and helped all ten succeed. But that’s another column maybe. With its strong lobbying and now its active participation in SCC cases, Clean Virginia is in the running to amend the famous aphorism, “Welcome to Virginia, owned and operated by….” The POV that I’m advocating has many supporters, but none are applying the kind of resources Dominion or CV are pumping in.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Mugshots of the thieves who will raid the ratepayers. I wonder how many of them made breakfast on a gas stove this morning?

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        Strong policy differences aside, they are very, very good at what they do. Despite the myth, there is no comparable effort funded by the Fans of Fossil Fuel. Hapless at best.

        1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
          James Wyatt Whitehead

          Looks like another slow day down on the Virginia solar farm.

  4. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    How about a constitutional amendment that prohibits campaign contributions from anyone except a live human being that resides in, and is a citizen of, the “district” in which a candidate is running. No PACs. No out of state contributions. No contributions to a state senate candidate from someone not living in the district. Etc.

    Any “independent” spending to promote or oppose a candidate or issue is lawful only so long as there is no coordination between the two parties. Coordination would be defined as any communication between principals, their agents or anyone who appears to be acting on behalf of one of the parties. So, if Dominion’s lobbyist meets with, emails, talks to, texts, etc., a candidate or anyone working for such candidate (or issue committee), any expenditure by Dominion on behalf of a candidate or issue becomes illegal. Ditto for making a contribution against a candidate or issue. Put Hollywood, Wall Street, Beltway Bandits or the Koch Brothers, as well as Clean Virginia or Dominion on the sidelines because there is communications between the “outside” and the “inside” entities.

    1. Matt Adams Avatar
      Matt Adams

      Not only would that resolve the issues with PAC’s but it would curtail the reason PAC’s came into existence to begin with, “Unions”.

  5. energyNOW_Fan Avatar

    Green NGO’s are worried about million$ in “dark” money to support fossil fuels. To counter that they are funding anti-fossil fuel rhetoric with billion$. But the liberal cause is “white” money going to save humanity.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      If millions in pro-hydrocarbon money is flowing into VA, I can’t find it. Give them my contact info. In my experience the companies cower and avoid direct confrontation.

      Just heard from Clean VA directly to correct a point. Bills gives to them but his wife actually gives directly, none of it through the PAC. I clarified above that he alone “funds” them, but still kept the reference to the “power couple.” 🙂

  6. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    I can’t find a Bluestem Asset Management website…
    I did find this –
    $1.3 billion under management in pooled equity funds…
    240 fat cats average investment of $5,417,000
    I’m gonna take a wild guess…huge in “alternative” energy investments? How much already government subsidized? The (Anti) “Inflation Reduction Act” beneficiaries?
    It’s almost like the recent O’Keefe sting on the Blackrock guy talking about how cheap it is to buy US Senators.
    Any recipients of the money actually curious? (No. They are just true believers in the false church of “climate change,” and corrupt themselves)
    We used to have a real press. Hey, Daily Regress – if you want to survive, go look around the fancy estates in Albemarle, find an investor in Bluestem Partners and look at an investor report to see what they are invested in. Curious minds wanna know

  7. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    If the Billionaires didn’t have so much self-centeredness, they might donate say all but $50 million, not to advocacy groups or flying private jets to climate change meetings, but to help ordinary people insulate their homes and buy more energy-efficient appliances. Ditto for the foundations and trusts that worry about climate change. Of course, that would mean no jobs for the highly paid people who run these foundations and trusts.

    On a positive note, Duke University has announced that it will provide free tuition to any student residing in either North or South Carolina whose family income is no higher than $150,000. Now, wouldn’t that better than paying for DEI bureaucracies?

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