Inexperienced Vitality Buys Itself a Legislature • Watts Up With That?

By Steve Haner

Virginia’s anything goes campaign finance environment allowed its dominant electric utility and a green energy political action committee to jointly bankroll the November 8 Democratic steamroller in the state.  The amounts they spent amounted to a six-fold increase compared to four years ago, the last time the House of Delegates and State Senate were both on the ballot.

Two massive donors, giving far more than any other companies or special interest groups, are Dominion Energy Virginia (almost $13 million) and Clean Virginia Fund, a state-level political action committee (more than $10 million). Clean Virginia has received most of its funding from a Charlottesville hedge fund magnate, Michael Bills. 

Four years ago they gave a combined $4 million, and this time it was closer to $24 million.  Why?

Four years ago there was no Virginia Clean Economy Act, no mandatory renewable energy percentages in state law, no mandate to stop the sale of new gasoline vehicles in lockstep with California. Four years ago, Dominion’s $9.8 billion (or more) ocean wind project was still in the planning stages and hadn’t filed for regulatory approval. Now the massive project is underway, one of the few in the U.S. still on track, due to its favorable state regulatory environment.

All of those net-zero pipe dreams are completely safe from legislative interference for another General Assembly cycle. Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin’s decision to remove Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative carbon tax probably hangs on the 2025 governor’s race, unless a court strikes it down first. As for the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, Youngkin is a major supporter anyway.  It was an issue in New Jersey but never Virginia.  

The green energy money flowing into the Virginia elections didn’t stop with Dominion or Clean Virginia, of course.  The League of Conservation Voters spent another $4 million directly.  Mr. Bills’ spouse has her own millions and directly donated almost another $5 million.  Smaller industry PACs and players added to the total, and the issue motivated many individual donors.  And Virginia’s porous election laws leave much political activity unreported.

Four years ago, the largest sum Dominion gave to any individual candidate was $82,500.  This time around, so far, 15 candidates received more than $250,000 from it, and the highest amount donated was almost $700,000. That went to an unopposed Democrat who will now be the new Speaker of the House.  Clean Virginia’s largest donations exceed $600,000, including to two Democrats who won two of the most watched Senate seats.

The campaign messaging usually touched on energy issues only tangentially and was never the focus of major advertising dollars.  In part, that was because no candidates really took the contrary position and challenged any of Virginia’s green energy legal structure, except from some mentions of the electric vehicle mandate and vague complaints that incumbents had voted to increase energy costs.

The voters were not hearing about energy and were instead bombarded with messaging on the Democrats’ key social issue, abortion. It is fair to claim green energy paid for many of those ads. But the money trail reveals this was an election about energy policy after all. The reform agenda that could have been part of the discussion was lost. 

While Dominion and Clean Virginia often disagree over regulatory issues, on many issues they are closely aligned. If any serious effort is put forward now to repeal or amend the Virginia Clean Economy Act, both will lobby against ending the net zero targets. Both are keen for electric vehicles and will work to protect that mandate. Both strongly support Dominion’s offshore wind development and rapidly growing fleet of solar farms.

Dominion’s money is fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Clean Virginia over its years of giving has provided 98% to Democrats.  So Dominion did fund some of the Republican messaging and has far more influence with Republicans than does Clean Virginia. In some key races, Dominion’s money was on one side and Clean Virginia’s on the other.  That way the ultimate winner would be beholden to at least one of the entities when the push came on a future bill.  All bets were covered. 

A $24 million investment in keeping the legislature compliant and obedient makes perfect sense once you realize the billions and billions of dollars the transition to wind, solar and battery will extract from Virginia’s residential and business ratepayers over the next decade. Dominion and Clean Virginia both understand return on investment.

This is the biggest mistake offshore wind developers in New Jersey and New York made, the ones that in recent weeks have backed out of various offshore wind deals. They failed to take the additional step of buying themselves a friendly legislature to write the procurement rules. Of course, those states both have campaign contribution limits in their laws, an inconvenience not faced by Dominion Energy or Clean Virginia


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