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Senators kill effort to restore state control over Va. electric rates, but promise to revisit the issue

State Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, wants Virginia to re-regulate its utilities (Steve Helber)

RICHMOND — State senators on Monday killed yet another attempt to restore state control over electricity rates paid by consumers but this time they promised to revisit the issue later in the week.

Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) had re-introduced legislation that would lift a rate freeze that Dominion Energy has enjoyed since 2015 - a bill that also failed last year. He pointed out that Virginia voters elected a number of Democrats to the House of Delegates in November who campaigned in part on undoing the General Assembly's protections for the state's largest utility and its biggest corporate political donor.

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Dominion and the smaller Appalachian Power Co., which serves customers in the southwestern part of the state, ordinarily have their base rates reviewed by the State Corporation Commission. If they are found to have reaped excessive profits through their monopolies on power distribution, the SCC can order refunds to customers.

But in 2015, citing the uncertainty created by the environmental regulations under then-President Obama's Clean Power Plan, the General Assembly agreed to freeze the base rates for several years to shield the utilities from increased expenses.

Last year, Petersen argued that since the Trump administration has killed the Clean Power Plan, the freeze should be lifted. Studies by the SCC have shown that Dominion has earned hundreds of millions in extra profits during the freeze.

His effort failed last year and again on Monday, with members of the Commerce and Trade Committee arguing that the utility still faces considerable uncertainty as it migrates to alternative sources of energy. One senator pointed out that environmental groups have donated more political money than Dominion.

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However, committee leaders acknowledged that the regulatory climate has changed, and said they would unveil legislation later this week that would lift the freeze — just not as abruptly as Petersen's bill.

"This is the appropriate time to go back into a re-regulated environment," committee chairman Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) said. He and Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax County) said they would roll out a bipartisan bill on Thursday that more comprehensively addresses the need to both regulate and protect the utilities.

Saslaw bristled as several speakers referred to the pending legislation as "the Dominion bill."

"Let me be as clear as I can: There is no Dominion bill," Saslaw said in the committee meeting. "That bill is being sponsored by Sen. Wagner and myself, and what goes into that bill, we're putting into that bill. Are we talking to them? Yes we are talking to them. But that is not Dominion's bill. That's our bill."

After the senators voted 13-1 to set Petersen's bill aside indefinitely, Petersen noted on Facebook that the committee leaders had made a lot of promises.

The upcoming bill "will issue refunds, promote green energy and cure cancer — all with the support of Dominion," he said. "I'm mighty skeptical."