by Steve Haner
Sec. 13.10. No sale or lease of utilities except when approved by referendum. There shall be no sale or lease of the water, wastewater, gas or electric utilities unless the proposal for such sale or lease shall first be submitted to the qualified voters of the city at a general election and be approved by a majority of all votes cast at such election.
That provision is in the charter for the City of Richmond, part of the Code of Virginia. Note it does not require the city’s leaders to consult with the people before closing a city-owned utility, just before the sale or lease.
City officials have been publicly silent about the meaning of the Richmond City Council vote on September 13 that it intends to “phase out reliance on gas” and considers “continued operation of the City’s gas utility … an obstacle to the City’s goal of Net Zero emissions.” Obstacles are things which get removed.
The silence is possible because the Richmond local media have not pressed city officials for details about it, at least not as reported. Perhaps they have been privately told that the vote was actually meaningless, merely a show to mollify the climate alarmists who spent months pushing for the 11-page resolution. But legally, shutting down the utility is quite possible, if likely to be hard.
A quick review of the full charter finds the provisions that authorize Richmond to operate a natural gas distributor “within and without the city.” But nothing in the charter apparently imposes a duty on the city to maintain that service.
As a utility owned and operated under a municipal charter, the Richmond Gas Works is also unregulated by the State Corporation Commission. A spokesman for the commission confirmed Monday that it has authority over the safe operation of the utility, under federal safety laws, but no authority over its rates or terms of service.
The SCC has indirect authority over the boundaries of its service territory because it defines territories for surrounding investor-owned gas distributors. Richmond Gas Works, unaware in the past of its new status as an obstacle, has aggressively defended its service territory against private competitors.
As recently as 2015 the SCC settled a dispute between the city and Columbia Gas over service in some neighborhoods of Chesterfield County. The city claimed Columbia Gas had encroached upon the city’s service territory years before, the city wanted it ejected, but the SCC allowed Columbia to stay. That ruling takes on extra significance now.
But other parts of Chesterfield and the entirety of Henrico County are at the mercy of decisions made by a Richmond City Council they did not vote for. Their only recourse is to turn to their members of the General Assembly. As much as cities like Richmond hate it, they are created by and governed by Acts of Assembly. Charters can be amended. SCC authority can be expanded.
In a response to a constituent, shared with Bacon’s Rebellion, one member of City Council sought to discount the interpretation that council intends to get out of the gas business entirely. But the message is not clear. I reprint the forwarded message from First District Councilman Andreas Addison in full:
This was not the resolution before the Council. This was part of the resolution to make our city more resilient, not to shut off natural gas. This translation is very extreme in its actual intent and language. Our previous commitment to de-couple our natural gas rates from our revenues meant that consumption of natural gas was not directly connected to our revenues and costs. Relying on natural gas does not mean no natural gas. Our city is challenged, as many others across the country, with the oncoming electrification needed to support electric cars and other resources. This is meant to push for a more sustainable future, not the extreme outcome as explained in this article.
Since we lead the public utility department of natural gas, pushing for more sustainable options is in our best interest. Dominion Energy will be pushing for more electricity across the region, if we do not keep up with future trends, then we will be left with a minimally operating natural gas agency. This is meant to push for more modern operations and approaches, best practices from cities across the country.
Over the decades, profits from the sale of natural gas inside and outside the city limits have been a major revenue source for the city. If the goal is merely to end the reliance on that money, that still should cause concern among the customers that the long term move is toward closure.
During the public hearing before the 8 to 0 vote on the resolution September 13, one of the six speakers in favor (none opposed) identified as a spokesperson for the Sierra Club. That group was also heard from in the comment string on the first Bacon’s Rebellion article, with this from its Virginia leader Glen Besa:
How convenient that Mr. Haner neglects to mention climate change. No one would shut down Richmond Gas Works overnight as Haner implies. If we start today, we could begin phasing out gas as current appliances age out and are replaced by high efficiency heat pumps and other electricity based appliances. The fossil fuel industry has stalled action on climate the past 30 years. Now is the time to #ActonClimate.
Besa’s ultimate intent is clear. Customers in the Richmond Gas Works service territory who seek to continue using natural gas in future years need to seek protection from the General Assembly. If such a bill fails, the handwriting is on the wall.