Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in the June 13 primary election, debates at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke on May 4, 2017. (Heather Rousseau/Associated Press)

RICHMOND — Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has taken heat from environmentalists for refusing to condemn a pair of natural gas pipelines being built in the state, but a recent letter from Virginia’s biggest utility suggests the potential political payoff from his neutral stance.

Dominion Energy chief executive Thomas Farrell sent a letter May 12 to the company’s 76,000 employees, retirees and shareholders throughout Virginia that urged them to consider Dominion’s pipeline project when voting in the June 13 gubernatorial primary.

Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline is “one of the largest and most important projects our company has ever undertaken,” Farrell wrote. (The other Virginia pipeline, the Mountain Valley, is sponsored by EQT and several partners).

Farrell went on to list several benefits of the project, saying it would reduce energy bills, help further the goal of cleaner air and open up the southeastern area of the state to economic development. Without it, Hampton Roads lacks the natural-gas infrastructure to attract big employers, he said.

Then he noted that the pipeline has been an issue in the statewide political campaigns. With both parties holding primary elections on June 13, “[p]lease take time to review the candidates’ positions and see how they stand on critical projects such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” Farrell wrote. “I urge you to exercise your constitutional right to vote in the primary of your choice.”

While he did not mention any candidates by name, the point of Farrell’s letter was clear to anyone following the governor’s race in Virginia — particularly the closely fought Democratic contest, where the pipelines have been one of the few policy distinctions between the two candidates.

Northam has said only that the pipelines should get strict environmental review, while his rival for the nomination, former congressman Tom Perriello, has flatly opposed them.

At a recent candidates forum in Charlottesville, two University of Virginia climate activists interrupted Northam and demanded that he denounce the pipelines, which are being built in the southern and western parts of the state.

Northam praised the students for exercising their freedom of speech and said he served in the Army to guarantee their rights, but he declined to elaborate beyond his routine answer. The activists jeered him, and about 10 sang and danced in front of the stage while moderators pleaded with them to stop.

Dominion has come under scrutiny this year for the enormous influence that it wields in Richmond as the state’s top corporate campaign donor. Northam and other candidates come under criticism for owning shares in Dominion and for taking contributions from the company.

Republican candidates Ed Gillespie and state Sen. Frank Wagner (Virginia Beach) have also taken donations from Dominion, and have endorsed the pipelines as good for the economy. The third Republican candidate, Corey Stewart, has criticized Dominion and received no donations, recent campaign finance disclosures show.

Perriello, who has refused any Dominion donations, regularly makes the utility a target in debates and campaign appearances. He criticizes its pipeline as bad for the environment, and asserts that Dominion has too much sway with elected officials.


Dominion Energy’s Possum Point Power Station in Dumfries, Va. (Kate Patterson/The Washington Post)

But Dominion’s influence extends beyond politicians. It is one of the biggest corporate employers in Virginia, has tens of thousands of shareholders in the state and touches millions of customers. When it talks, that audience listens.

And many of them are older and relatively affluent — the very people most likely to come out and vote in a low-turnout primary.

A spokesman for Dominion said the company tries to keep its constituents regularly informed about where it stands on issues.

“It’s not unusual for the company to encourage participation — both in the form of philanthropic volunteerism . . . or politically as part of the democratic process,” spokesman David Botkins said. “Dominion employees are active and engaged and appreciate being communicated with directly by company leadership.”

That type of corporate influence is common and permissible under campaign finance laws, said Ken Gross, who leads the political law practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in the District.

Northam’s campaign says that he is not swayed by donations or attempts at corporate lobbying. It is not fair to single out one corporate contributor, Northam has said; he has called for barring all businesses and corporations from giving to political campaigns and for requiring nonprofit contributors to reveal their donors.

His spokesman said Northam’s position on the pipeline has nothing to do with the political clout suggested by Dominion’s letter.

“As the lieutenant governor has previously stated, he only makes decisions based on what’s best for Virginians. Period,” spokesman David Turner said. “It’s why he believes the facts and process should dictate the [pipeline] decision.”

Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.