by Steve Haner
Does Tuesday’s election result mean Virginia is going to move back towards a rational energy policy? Watch two key personnel decisions, both entirely matters for the next legislature to decide.
State Corporation Commissioner Angela Navarro was elected by the 2021 General Assembly to fill the unexpired term of Mark Christie, who moved to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. His SCC term was expiring January 31, 2022, so hers does too, putting her up for reconsideration immediately.
A former staff lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, she was an architect and advocate for the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act. Key decisions on that are beginning to fill the SCC docket, the largest being the next Dominion integrated resource plan and the first tranche of offshore wind development.
Will the new Republican majority in the House of Delegates deny Navarro a full term and choose another judge less associated with that bill? Well, the oldest rule in the legislature is “what goes around comes around.” When the Democrats took full control of the Assembly in the 2020 session, former Commissioner Patricia West was seeking an extension on her partial SCC term that began in 2019.
She was denied that extension, and instead replaced by Jehmal T. Hudson, who had been serving at FERC in a staff position.
West was not even given the simple courtesy of a hearing in front of the legislative committee, even as she sat in the room for what is usually a pro-forma opportunity to speak. Delegate Richard “Rip” Sullivan, D-Arlington, was the committee chair who ignored her, and sitting right beside him that day was Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, who didn’t push for her to be heard. West, a former cabinet member, chief deputy attorney general and circuit court judge, was shamefully disrespected.
Even if Navarro is to be replaced, she should be given better treatment and a chance to make her case for a full term.
Kilgore is at the center of the other personnel question, as he is pushing hard once again to rise up from his seat at the far western end of the Commonwealth and become Speaker of the House. Dominion Energy Virginia has no more loyal lieutenant in the House than Kilgore, the only Republican in that body to vote for that same 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act. His legislative career has been sustained with $375,891 in Dominion donations, despite the political safety of his seat.
He voted for the bill because Dominion promised to continue the existence of the expensive (and apparently money losing) Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in St. Paul, burning coal, coal waste and other carbon-emitting fuels. The war on fossil fuels crowd (Navarro included) accepted the continued existence of Virginia City as the price of making the deal with Dominion and Kilgore. Presto, it became a bipartisan bill. One Republican senator joined in the very bad vote.
Search in vain for any vote cast by Kilgore against the wishes of Dominion, no matter who was pushing on the other side. His constituents are served by other electric utilities, so any price increases his actions impose on Dominion’s 2.6 million customers in other parts of the state cost him no votes. Those future Dominion price hikes discussed in the campaign? Not in Scott County.
The other likely candidate for Speaker, Delegate Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, has also been a reliable vote for Dominion on various regulatory matters, but did oppose the 2020 omnibus. (Dominion donations for his elections to his safe red seat total $485,219.)
Personnel is policy, and vice versa.
The 21 Senate Democrats could stand firm and block any new SCC Commissioner elected by the Republican House but doing that would leave the seat vacant. Navarro’s term has a hard stop of January 31. The SCC would be back to two members with the possibility that future Governor Glenn Youngkin could make a recess appointment. That the legislators usually will not abide. Picking judges is their gig.
If the next Assembly adjourns and Navarro is still on the Commission and Kilgore in the Speaker’s chair, the transformation of Virginia into a high-cost, low-reliability energy state will continue apace. There is not a single bill the next Governor needs to sign to keep that railroad running at full speed now. The question is what bills might pass to slow things or change direction.
And, as with many other things, Youngkin’s comments to date have been fairly general and non-specific anyway. His mandate for change was far clearer in education and law enforcement.
Repealing the 2020 VCEA or even seriously amending it (which Youngkin has discussed) will require at least some Democratic committee and floor votes. Unwinding the myriad other examples of lawful favoritism now built into our electricity regulatory laws will be even harder, because all were created and defended with Republican votes.
These two initial personnel decisions could indicate a change in direction but would just be a first step on a long hard road. Or they could be flashing signal that nothing will change after all.