RICHMOND — Dominion Power, among the most influential players in Virginia politics, is flexing its muscle with a proposal to keep part of its books closed to the public until 2023.
A bill filed by Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) would allow Dominion to push pause on independent scrutiny of its revenue that in some instances requires the utility giant to give refunds to customers or reduce rates. Dominion would retain its power to ask for special permission to raise rates.
Wagner said the measure, which he said Dominion officials drafted, is needed to protect the utility company from what he called onerous proposed federal regulations on coal-fired power plants intended to stem climate change.
But opponents — environmentalists and state Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) — said the bill is nothing but a ploy to shield Dominion from having its profits closely examined after a report that it may have a $280 million surplus.
Wagner’s bill would free Dominion from regular financial audits conducted by the State Corporation Commission, which oversees utility rates in Virginia.
Herring opposes bills “that limit the attorney general’s ability to advocate on behalf of consumers for the lowest rates possible, or that tie the hands of the State Corporation Commission in setting appropriate rates,” said spokesman Michael Kelly.
But Wagner responded angrily to the suggestion that he was carrying water for Dominion.
“I’ll be damned if people who haven’t done a thing to protect the consumers of Virginia are going to sit there and say I’m the one not protecting the consumers of Virginia — and that you can write down,” he said in an interview in his office Tuesday.
According to Wagner, the bill, which comes before a Senate subcommittee Thursday morning, would freeze part of customers’ rates by doing away with financial audits for six years beginning after this year’s review. The audits have been conducted every other year since 2008.
During a biennial financial review, the SCC sets the amount of profits Dominion can make. If the profits exceed that amount in one cycle, the SCC can order a refund to customers. If they exceed that amount in consecutive two-year cycles, the SCC can order a rate reduction.
Without the oversight, advocates say consumers will never know whether Dominion’s rates are in line with profits or if it has surplus money that it should be returning to ratepayers.
The bill would not necessarily freeze rates altogether. Dominion can still ask the SCC for a rate increase to cover fuel or other specific costs, as it did in 2013 for costs associated with a natural-gas power station in Brunswick County.
But even then, the public can weigh in, said Daniel A. Weekley, vice president of corporate affairs at Dominion. “Every group has the ability to intervene in that to say why that’s not proper,” he said. “That’s no different than today.”
The SCC, whose three board members are elected to six-year terms by the General Assembly, declined to comment on the merits of the bill.
“The biennial reviews are conducted to look at the financial position of the company to ensure that the company is within its authorized profit level and, if not, determine the amount that should be returned to ratepayers per Virginia law,” SCC spokesman Kenneth J. Schrad said.
Dominion’s clout in Virginia is long-standing. Routinely the biggest corporate donor to politicians besides candidate and political party committees, the company gave about $650,000 to politicians and their causes last year, according to data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.
Dominion is a reliable donor to Wagner’s campaigns, having given him a total of $36,000 over the past decade, VPAP data show. Wagner is a Dominion investor, according to his Statement of Economic Interests.
Dominion also employs a powerful lobbying arm that spent among the most in Virginia last year — about $14,000, entertaining lawmakers with meals as well as trips to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga.
The company also employs Robert M. Blue, who served as counsel and policy director for then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). Blue was promoted to president of the Dominion Virginia Power business unit shortly after Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) was elected.
Weekley defended the company by noting that its rates are among the lowest on the East Coast.
“We don’t benefit from high rates either,” he said. “We do what we think is best for the ratepayers and what we think is best for the commonwealth long term.”
Last year, the General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a measure signed by McAuliffe that allowed Dominion to deduct some costs associated with its North Anna nuclear plant from its profits, increasing the chances it could avoid refunding customers. Herring also opposed that measure.
Thomas P. Wohlfarth, senior vice president of regulatory affairs at Dominion, said the projected surplus doesn’t take into account hurricanes, mild weather that causes the company to lose revenue and “plant impairments because of environmental rules.”
“Running a utility is a very expensive business that doesn’t always show up in the blue-sky forecasts but ends up showing up in reality,” he said.
Environmental advocates are unhappy with Wagner’s bill.
Angela Navarro, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the measure flies in the face of efforts to develop alternative energy sources.
“This bill asks customers to give up potential refunds from Dominion, and in exchange, the bill encourages reliance on some of the oldest and dirtiest sources of generation while making it harder to take advantage of job-creating resources like solar and energy efficiency that Governor McAuliffe has pushed for in his energy plan,” she said.
Wagner allowed that Dominion profits could rise under his bill, but he said the bigger concern for him is the potential harm from federal regulations that he said treat Virginia unfairly compared with other states.
“We’ll let Dominion proceed ahead while we try to come to grips with these regulations,” he said.