After a blue wave swept over Virginia’s state house Nov. 7, Dominion Energy is facing a radically reconstructed General Assembly — and that could spell trouble for the utility as it pushes a pair of controversial projects in Prince William County.
Candidates all along the ideological spectrum weren’t shy about blasting the company’s business practices and political influence during the campaign, so it seemed a sure bet that the state-regulated monopoly would face a very new climate in Richmond no matter the exact election results. But with 13 candidates who refused any campaign contributions from the company winning seats in the House of Delegates — including five in Prince William—the political landscape looks more perilous for Dominion than it has in a generation.
“I hope what we’re seeing is a new day in Richmond,” said Elena Schlossberg, executive director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, a group fighting against Dominion’s proposal to bring a new power line to Gainesville and Haymarket. “Dominion can either get on board and be willing to be part of that change, or not. But what’s clear is we’re just not going to do what we always do.”
Lawmakers and political observers caution that the company still has plenty of powerful allies in the General Assembly even after the titanic shift toward Democratic candidates — not to mention that the company still gave more than $196,000 in all to both Gov.-elect Ralph Northam’s campaign and the state party.
But in Prince William, some of the company’s favorite candidates find themselves without jobs. The utility donated a total of $151,550 to the six delegates representing the county over the course of the careers — Del. Tim Hugo, R-40th District, was the only one to win re-election (pending the results of a recount). The five challengers who won those seats received $0 from the company in their campaigns.
“A lot of us are coming in with the same mindset; we don’t put profits over people,” said Del.-elect Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-2nd District. “This new group coming down is energized and takes a different perspective on campaign contributions from utility companies. So I do think it’ll be different. It’s refreshing.”
For now, the company isn’t projecting any concern (publicly, at least) about the new-look legislature. David Botkins, a Dominion Energy spokesman, wrote in a statement that the utility is “looking forward to getting to know the new members and working together on keeping low, stable rates; ever more reliable service by investing in the grid; and more clean energy.”
Yet there’s little doubt that Dominion will face plenty of pushback from the new Prince William delegation on its two most controversial initiatives in the county: the company’s plan to permanently bury more than 4 million tons of coal ash on a site adjacent to Quantico Creek outside Dumfries, and its work on the 230-kilovolt power line in western Prince William that Schlossberg so opposes.
FROM POWER LINES TO COAL ASH
On the latter front, Dominion was already facing some grumbling from Richmond — Del. Bob Marshall, R-13th District, has long been an ardent critic of the project’s potential effects on properties along its path, and he had pledged to work with Hugo to introduce a bill to somehow force Dominion to build the power line underground had he won re-election.
Yet his replacement, Del.-elect Danica Roem, is no fan of the project either. She railed against the power line frequently during her campaign, and while she would rather see state regulators simply reject the project in its entirety, she said she would be happy to work with Hugo on the bill he proposed before the election if they decline to do so.
“If Dominion Energy officials think that because Del. Marshall isn’t going to be there that they’ll have a pushover in the 13th District, now they have an investigative reporter in Richmond,” Roem said. “If they try anything that will harm the people of the 13th, I’ll call them on it.”
Action on the Possum Point coal ash may prove to be a bit more complicated, as lawmakers are anxiously awaiting the results of a study by Dominion of alternatives to simply leaving the ash in place.
That only came about after Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th District, took the lead on the issue in Richmond and was able to pass legislation barring state regulators from letting Dominion proceed with its plans until the utility completed that analysis. While that effort earned broad support in both chambers (after plenty of wrangling and haggling), Surovell didn’t have much in the way of reinforcements from his colleagues in the county — Foy, who will also represent Possum Point in Richmond, is hoping to change that.
She is planning to huddle with Surovell once Dominion delivers the alternatives study (which will examine the feasibility of removing the ash from the area or even recycling it) on Dec. 1, then find an “economically feasible” way to clean up the waste.
“We had candidates that ran on coal ash,” said Dean Naujoks, the Potomac Riverkeeper and a fierce opponent of Dominion’s plans to handle the waste at the Possum Point plant. “We are fully expecting to see more legislation on this in 2018.”
Surovell said he would certainly welcome some help in that department--his years of experience in Richmond have him feeling a bit more cautiously optimistic about the chances for any new coal ash legislation next year. He stressed that the bill he helped pass last year was only a modest step, far from legislation that would mandate that the company remove all its ash from the area — the utility claims doing so would be prohibitively expensive, while conservationists like Naujoks argue it’s a necessary step to prevent toxic heavy metals from leaching into the area’s groundwater.
“There are some new possibilities, but I don’t view what happened in the election as being a watershed moment or anything until Democrats are in the majority,” Surovell said. “It changes the discussion...but without a Democratic majority, major policy changes are difficult to achieve.”
Surovell noted that everyone in Richmond is anxiously waiting to see whether the GOP’s 51-49 majority in the House will survive the result of recounts and legal challenges in three close House races. Yet even if Democrats somehow take over the chamber, he points out that Republicans still control the Senate by a 21-19 margin and hold sway in the powerful committees that often kill legislation before it ever comes to a floor vote.
‘EVERYTHING WE WANT IS ON THE TABLE’
Josh Stanfield, the executive director of Activate Virginia, is a bit more hopeful. His small, grassroots group convinced more than 50 House candidates to sign a pledge refusing Dominion contributions, and he expects the success of that effort (and the Nov. 7 results) will send a powerful message to any legislator who is on the fence about a Dominion-related bill.
“Even if you have just 49 Democrats, then you’re in a position to whip votes,” Stanfield said. “And that includes Republicans who might feel a little bit endangered, given what just happened and how close these races were. State senators might feel same way.”
Stanfield said he believes Virginia has entered “the most populist moment in its history,” which means that “everything we want is on the table.” That includes a ban on political contributions by state-regulated utilities (like Dominion) and the reversal of a controversial “freeze” on the company’s electric rates put in place in 2015.
State Sen. Chap Petersen, D-34th District, introduced bills on both subjects last year, but they didn’t get very far. Now, he’s reviving both efforts, and he’s optimistic that they will have plenty of “momentum,” driven in part by Prince William’s newest delegates.
“They’re a force to be reckoned with,” Petersen said. “A lot of them came up outside of the system, and so naturally they’re going to challenge the system.”
Democratic leaders have already signaled cautious early support for undoing the Dominion rate freeze, which was originally justified as a necessary safeguard for ratepayers after the company warned that the “Clean Power Plan” would hurt its bottom line. With the Trump administration working to undo the plan, Petersen is hoping to let state regulators review the utility’s rates once more, cutting off the hundreds of millions in additional revenue that Dominion has collected since the freeze.
Surovell’s view on that effort, even in the wake of big Democratic gains, is simple: “Good luck.”
In fact, he thinks it would take some sort of “bipartisan compromise” to undo the freeze, suggesting that the legislature could leave the measure in place but direct Dominion to use even more of its funds from the freeze to pay for expensive coal ash clean-up methods at Possum Point and elsewhere.
Stanfield hopes lawmakers reject such a “watered down” approach, and Petersen doesn’t lend it much credence.
“Should these over-earnings be used to clean up coal ash or should they be refunded to consumers?” Petersen said. “I don’t know. But that, to me, is why we need the State Corporation Commission making those decisions and not the legislature.”
Indeed, for all his optimism, Stanfield expects activists will need to keep a close eye on these new delegates if Dominion’s opponents are to realize their biggest goals.
“It’s going to take constant pressure,” Stanfield said. “Some of these delegates are going to look for an out, even after they ran on it.”