Dominion, Clean VA Spend $23M Buying Influence

By Steve Haner

Dominion Energy Virginia has increased its donations to Virginia state politicians six-fold in just four years. The other major donors in the energy regulation arena, Clean Virginia Fund and its founder, have done much the same. They are donating five times more in the 2023 election cycle than they did in the similar 2019 cycle.

The two political behemoths have donated about $23 million between them, compared to about $4 million four years ago. The totals really won’t be known until the final reports are due after Tuesday’s election.

Virginia’s election laws are so porous, the real spending won’t be clear even then. Here in the last weekend another round of mailings in favor of various candidates has appeared from an advocacy group called Power for Tomorrow. It sent similar mailings out just before the June primary.

Reporting at that time noted that Dominion had provided funding for Power for Tomorrow, which basically is praising candidates who had voted for Dominion’s 2023 regulatory bill. There is every reason to believe it is acting at Dominion’s behest, and no question these mailers are intended to promote the candidates.

No data on who received them or what they cost, for either the primary or general election mailers, can be found at Virginia Public Access Project. The text does not actually say to vote for the candidate in focus, which may be the claimed loophole.

The mailer that appeared in Henrico County mailboxes praising Senator Siobahn Dunnavant used exactly the same talking points that Dominion has used through the year to describe that bill, which had its good and bad points. The mailer appeared just one day after the State Corporation Commission implemented part of that bill, allowing Dominion to convert two years of unpaid fuel bills into a bond, and then make its ratepayers pay off the bond over 7 years.

Depending on the final interest rates on the deal, that will cost Virginians hundreds of millions of dollars in interest they otherwise would not owe. It removes a pesky $1.3 billion debt from the company’s balance sheet and replaces it with a quick infusion of free cash flow.

Keep those sums in mind as it helps explain what you will read next.

The Virginia Public Access Project’s most recent compilation shows Dominion’s 2022-23 total for donations at $12.8 million. Four years ago, when the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate were last both on the line, the total donated was a mere $2 million and change.

Clean Virginia was founded with the express mission of weaning Virginia politicians off of Dominion money. Its issue advocacy has included campaign finance reform, but it is also a lobbying group pushing wind, solar and battery electricity generation and fighting to end fossil fuels.

In this cycle, its total donations are up to $10 million and change. Four years ago, it donated less than $400,000. But its principal funder and leader is wealthy Charlottesville hedge fund founder Michael Bills, and in 2019 he mainly gave his money directly to candidates. Between them the total was about $2 million, so the figure four years later is five times that amount.

This is equally astounding: four years ago, the largest sum Dominion gave to any individual candidate was $82,500.  This time around, so far, 15 candidates have received more than $250,000, and the highest amount donated is almost $700,000. Clean Virginia’s largest donations exceed $600,000.

Those single donations are more than most legislative campaigns cost in total just a few short years ago. Many are still costing less. The argument that sums those large do not influence legislator votes should be met with derision.

By way of comparison, the state’s second largest investor-owned electricity provider, Appalachian Power Company, donated about $300,000 four years ago and $400,000 total this cycle.

While Dominion and Clean Virginia often clash over regulatory issues, on many issues they are closely aligned. If any serious effort is put forward to repeal or amend the Virginia Clean Economy Act, both will lobby against that. Both are keen for electric vehicles and will work to protect that mandate. Both strongly support Dominion’s offshore wind development and rapidly growing fleet of solar farms.

There is a current division over how much fossil fuel generation to retain going forward, and they could butt heads on that in the next General Assembly.

Dominion’s money is fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Clean Virginia over its years of giving has provided 98% to Democrats.

Four years ago, there was no Virginia Clean Economy Act, no mandatory renewable energy percentages, no mandate to stop the sale of new gasoline vehicles. Four years ago, the $9.8 billion (or more) wind project was still in the planning stages and hadn’t filed for regulatory approval. Now the massive project is underway, one of the few in the U.S. still on track entirely due to its favorable regulatory environment. Those favorable rules were provided by (wait for it) these very same legislators.

A $23 million investment in keeping the legislature compliant and obedient makes perfect sense once you realize the billions and billions of dollars the transition to wind, solar and battery will extract from Virginia’s residential and business ratepayers over the next decade. Dominion and Clean Virginia both understand return on investment.

This is the biggest mistake offshore wind developers in New Jersey and New York made, the ones that in recent weeks have backed out of various offshore wind deals. They failed to take the additional step of buying themselves a friendly legislature to write the procurement rules. Of course, those states both have campaign contribution limits in their laws, an inconvenience not faced by Dominion Energy or Clean Virginia.