By Dick Hall-Sizemore
Well, investigative journalism is still alive. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has teamed up with the national journalist investigative organization, ProPublica, to report on the political influence of Dominion Energy in Virginia.
The first result of this effort is a major, long article in today’s edition of the RTD. By long, I mean a big front-page display and three full pages on the inside, plus another full page on utility influence in other states. For those BR readers who are stopped by the newspaper’s paywall, I would recommend that you try to read it.
The main gist of the article is painfully familiar to long-time Bacon’s Rebellion readers. However, the article does contain some fascinating details about the negotiations over the Clean Economy Act during the 2020 session. The RTD and ProPublica staff used the Freedom of Information Act to get emails and phone records from the administration. They interviewed the sponsors of the legislation, Dominion representatives, and the negotiators from the environmental groups. They contacted independent utility regulation experts.
Here are some takeaways:
The original bill (Clean Economy Act) passed by the House required utilities to meet tougher energy efficiency standards and accept more solar and other renewable energy generated by producers other than Dominion. It did not include language mandating that Dominion own the offshore wind component of the package. Once it got to the Senate, Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (no surprise) “told environmental groups that to get any climate bill through the Senate, they’d need agreement from Dominion.”
Representatives of Dominion and environmentalists engaged in marathon negotiating sessions over five weeks. No legislators were involved.
The talks dragged on. Dominion would agree to some proposals, only later to back away from its former position. The representative from the National Resources Defense Council got so disgusted she quit the talks.
The sponsors of the House and Senate bills, Del. Rip Sullivan of Fairfax and Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, said they largely left the details to Dominion and the environmental groups. “Other than just generally focusing on ‘What can we do to expand wind,’ I was not involved in the weeds of the language negotiations,” said McClellan.
That left the environmental negotiators at the mercy of Bill Murray, an amiable, smart negotiator who has been around the legislative process for 29 years and is well-liked and respected by legislators. He also has access to a deep bench and deep pockets.
On the day before the bill was to come to a final vote in the legislature, Angela Navarro, the deputy secretary of commerce, who was acting as the administration’s mediator in the talks, directed that a small “tweak” be made in the legislation. That “tweak” resulted in a $2.5 billion increase in the acceptable cost of Dominion’s proposed wind farm — an increase that ratepayers would be on the hook for. Navarro says that the language change was negotiated with the group. “I think we discussed it amongst all the stakeholders,” she said. Representatives of the environmental groups deny knowing anything about it. Phone and email records show that Navarro was in contact with Dominion both directly before and after the change was made. Sen. McClellan says that she was unaware of the change until RTD and ProPublica asked her about it months after the bill passed. Del. Sullivan said he was aware of the change but not the “resulting dollar amount.”
Regarding the wind project, the bill contains key language requiring the SCC to find costs “reasonably and prudently incurred.” This language must have appeared from thin air because no one involved seems to know its origin. Sen. McClellan said she was not “involved in the weeds of the language.” Del. Sullivan said it came from “the ongoing collaborative process between lots of stakeholders.” The environmental negotiators said they didn’t write it or help write it. Bill Murray of Dominion said he did not know who wrote it, but he did concede that the company’s legal representatives were “involved in discussions about it.”
Del. Lee Carter, a Democrat from Manassas, summed up perfectly what happened to the Democrats’ Clean Economy Act: “In previous years, [Dominion has] gotten [its] ratepayer money through fossil fuel projects because that is what they could get through a Republican-held General Assembly. Now they have adapted and they’re doing their price gouging on renewable energy projects. They are, in my opinion, taking advantage of this new majority’s desire to do something for the environment and they are using that as a way to gouge the citizens of this commonwealth.” Shades of Steve Haner.There are currently no comments highlighted.