RICHMOND — The General Assembly is almost ready to wrap up its work, but Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax City) is escalating one of the most stubborn fights of the session: his effort to restore state control over the electricity rates paid by consumers.
His target is Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a fellow Democrat who could bring the matter back to life even though legislators have walked away from it.
“What are we waiting on?” Petersen asked Tuesday.
The issue took shape in 2015, when state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) introduced a bill to suspend the oversight of utility rates by the State Corporation Commission. In the past, the commission could set rates or order the state’s two biggest electricity providers — Dominion Power and Appalachian Power — to refund customers if they were found to have overcharged.
But two years ago, the utilities successfully argued that the Obama administration’s pending Clean Power Plan created uncertainty and the threat of higher costs. So Wagner’s bill froze base rates and protected them from review. McAuliffe signed the bill into law after Dominion agreed to invest in weatherization for poor customers and to expand its investment in solar energy.
Now, Petersen says, the Clean Power Plan, which was suspended by a federal judge, is dead under the Trump administration. He introduced a bill earlier in the session that would have restored state oversight of utility rates once the Clean Power Plan was officially overturned.
That measure died in committee, where politicians of both parties were loath to take on Dominion. The Richmond-based utility is the biggest corporate political donor in the state, spending nearly $700,000 in the past year on Republicans and Democrats, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.
“The Clean Power Plan is not dead,” Dominion spokesman David Botkins said. “It still exists, and a federal appeals court is now reviewing it. President Trump says he opposes it, but Virginia’s governor and attorney general support it. No one actually knows what comes next. It would be irresponsible to throw out Virginia’s laws before anyone knows what the rules will be going forward.”
But Petersen’s crusade has continued to pick up bipartisan support, including that of former state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II, a Republican who appeared with Petersen at a news conference Tuesday.
In one of the stranger pairings in recent Virginia politics, Cuccinelli has joined with former state attorney general Andrew Miller, a Democrat, to file a court brief challenging the law on behalf of the left-leaning Virginia Poverty Law Center.
The General Assembly’s failure to address the rate freeze “is happening for the benefit of the most politically connected special interest in all of Virginia,” Cuccinelli said Tuesday. He said the combination of Dominion’s good relationship with legislators and the complexity of electricity-rate legislation is keeping Richmond from acting.
Petersen’s latest proposal is that the governor propose legislation that would rescind the rate freeze or attach an amendment to one of two energy-related bills that are expected to pass the General Assembly this week. Depending on which route he chose, the governor could have up to 30 days to act, Petersen said. The Assembly would still have to approve the change, but Petersen said he thinks support is spreading far enough to give the matter a chance. Nearly 2,000 people have emailed lawmakers urging action, mostly through the nonprofit Consumers Union.
McAuliffe said Tuesday that he wants Virginians to pay the lowest electricity rates possible and is studying the issue. “We need to see what’s going on at the federal level as it relates to energy policy,” he said after a ceremony in which he vetoed a measure passed by the Assembly that would have defunded Planned Parenthood.
Dominion has said that rescinding the law would be changing the rules midstream and pointed out that overall rates are lower now for Virginia customers than when the freeze went into effect. That is at least partly due to a decline in natural gas prices.
The utility also cited its investment in solar energy.