Clean Virginia, the anti-Dominion group dedicated to “fighting monopoly utility corruption,” released a study Monday asserting that Virginians pay excess rates of $254 a year on average due to poor state oversight. That study was duly picked up by the Washington Post, which duly repeated its findings (along with Dominion’s rebuttal).
As far as I’m concerned, as a regulated monopoly, Dominion deserves the public scrutiny it gets. Dominion Energy is a publicly traded company, and its fiduciary responsibility is to maximize profits for shareholders. Its interests are not the same as those of ratepayers or the general public. But Dominion doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The company does business within the context of a larger political system — a political system in which the environmental movement constitutes an increasingly powerful force.
Dominion hires a cadre of very smart lawyers and lobbyists who work every hour of every day to ensure that its interests are looked after in the General Assembly and in State Corporation Commission hearings. Environmental groups hire lawyers and lobbyists, too. The utility is one of the biggest campaign contributors in the state, as the media repeatedly remind us. Environmentalists contribute even more money. Dominion exercises influence through targeted donations to charitable causes. Environmentalists exercise influence through targeted donations to activist groups.
The main difference is that journalists have demonstrated an extraordinary lack of curiosity about how environmentalists flex their muscles in Virginia’s political system. Uncritical news coverage effectively assumes that environmentalists are idealists with motives as pure as angel feathers.
In fact, the environmental movement is not a disinterested participant in the political process. The goal of the groups pitched against Dominion isn’t to maximize profit, but to advance an ideological vision. These groups see climate change as an existential threat to humanity, and they aim not to balance the cost, reliability and environmental sustainability of Virginia’s electric grid — they aim to build a green grid and decarbonize the economy. Environmentalists say a green grid can be just as affordable and reliable as the one Dominion wants to build — claims that deserve respectful consideration — but affordability and reliability are subsidiary to the primary goal of combating global warming by reducing carbon-dioxide emissions.
Millions of dollars in dark money from wealthy philanthropists and foundations is sloshing around Virginia’s political system. It doesn’t show up in campaign contribution reports or lobbyist reports. But this dark money is used to influence public policy indirectly, by hiring lawyers to file lawsuits, organizing activists to hold protest rallies, engaging P.R. professionals to do research and spin… and in even to underwrite the hiring of climate-change activists on the staffs of state Attorney Generals. (Hopefully, I’ll find the time to write that story.) While the environmental movement we see in Virginia unquestionably has grassroots support, its political power is magnified immeasurably by dark money.
Therefore, it is right and proper that journalists scrutinize environmental groups and dark money just like they scrutinize Dominion. But they don’t. There is a vast nexus of money and influence to be laid bare, but mainstream journalists have studiously ignored it. The reason, I suspect is simple. Most journalists share the environmentalists’ worldview. They don’t see anything that needs investigating.
Here at Bacon’s Rebellion, we believe in holding Dominion accountable. Steve Haner has broken almost as many news stories lately as the mainstream media has. Admittedly, he approaches Virginia energy policy from a ratepayer perspective, not an environmentalist perspective. But he carries on the old Henry Howell tradition of “keeping the big boys honest.”
But Dominion isn’t the only big boy in this playground. There are people like Michael D. Bills, a Charlottesville multimillionaire and Clean Virginia chairman, who has made it his mission to advance clean energy by countering Dominion’s political influence. What does the public know about Bills? How much of Clean Virginia does he fund himself, and how much comes from other sources? How else might be influence public policy in Virginia?
Delving deeper, one could document Virginia’s changing political economy. Who are the other environmentalists groups seeking to influence energy policy in Virginia? How do they exercise influence — through campaign contributions, lobbying, filing lawsuits, underwriting activist groups, conducting research, influencing the media, and by ways not yet discovered? Where does their money come from? From personal donations? From tax-advantaged foundations? From other sources even more deeply hidden?
What can be done. I have dipped into these questions on Bacon’s Rebellion, but I am only one person with a dozen different editorial priorities, not to mention the necessity of earning a living outside the blog. I propose hiring a full-time staff writer to work under my direction, documenting and laying bare the political economy of energy and environmental policy in Virginia, with a special emphasis on bringing the dark money to light. I can donate my time as editor, but I cannot afford to pay a writer’s salary myself. If you are interested in supporting this initiative financially, or if you know someone who might be, please contact me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com.There are currently no comments highlighted.