Legislature Moves To Fill Power Vacuum It Created

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, new Chairman of the Commission on Electric Utility Regulation (Image: Virginia Star)

By Steve Haner

State Senator Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, showed today that he had something which the State Corporation Commission now lacks – a quorum.  Surovell and the other legislators will gather in Richmond tomorrow to address the state budget but are expected once again to fail to fill the two vacancies on that vital regulatory body.

Surovell, however, was chosen this afternoon to chair the newly reconstituted Commission on Electric Utility Regulation (CEUR), a legislative oversight panel that has not met since December 2017 despite several tumultuous years of change in Virginia’s energy sector. The meeting lasted just a few minutes beyond one hour and never discussed the huge problem the legislators have created by refusing to elect new SCC regulators.

The single sitting State Corporation Commissioner, Jehmal Hudson, has been joined in several recent orders by former Commissioner Patricia West, sitting in as a substitute judge and creating a quorum of two on the three-judge panel.  West is now taking a job as chair of the State Parole Board and once she is no longer available, it is unclear what comes next. Hudson by himself cannot approve a final order. Word is that all the hearings are already being conducted by hearing officers, not Hudson.

Tomorrow is the last opportunity until January for the legislature to fill one or both vacancies, a deadlock now two years old. Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) has shown no inclination so far to make a recess appointment, which would hold only until the legislature meets. If he does name someone, Surovell has indicated he would challenge it anyway, claiming the Senate is technically not adjourned.

Perhaps Surovell, a Democrat, and other legislators are happy that the official regulatory body is weakened as they begin to assert more interest in this arena. Republican Delegate Terry Kilgore was elected to be vice chairman of the CEUR.  Surovell, from Fairfax County, and Kilgore, from Scott County, worked together on the legislation that revived CEUR.

The legislative membership has been named, although it could be scrambled by the election. State Senator Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, is not seeking a new term. Should party control shift in one body either way, expect additional changes.  Attorney General Jason Miyares is being represented by his Consumer Counsel Meade Browder, and additional citizen members are still pending. Governor Glenn Youngkin has not yet named his choice as a consumer advocate.

Job one, as discussed at the brief meeting, is hiring an executive director. The group can have up to six staff persons, but the money being approved in the new budget won’t go that far. Surovell was quite open about wanting to build up the funds to build up the staff. Under the new law, CEUR will play a role in energy plans developed by the governor and will be able to issue ratepayer impact estimates on pending legislation.

Surovell announced that he had initially hoped for a meeting that began to dive immediately into issues, hoping that Dominion Energy Virginia would come to discuss its disputed Integrated Resource Plan, Youngkin’s Energy Department would come to talk about its plans and activities, and even sought a presentation on federal energy issues. But the meeting stuck to basics instead.

Without question, this is creating a legal and political power center on energy matters that did not exist before, and which could easily compete and even contend with the SCC or the executive branch. Who will call the shots, again, depends in part on the election, but not entirely on that.

Most of these legislators in either party take major campaign contributions from the players in this arena — Dominion Energy Virginia, Appalachian Power Company, Clean Virginia and other renewable energy advocates and providers — something not allowed with SCC judges. A dysfunctional SCC only adds to the influence flowing from those multi-millions of dollars.