RICHMOND — A Senate panel voted Monday to scrap a bill that would undo a utility rate freeze and lower electricity rates for most Virginia residents.
For the second year in a row, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee killed a measure to undo a controversial rate freeze that locked customers of Appalachian Power Co. and Dominion Energy into base rates that earned the companies millions.
But this year, several committee members said they’re working on alternative legislation to get at the same issue. The bills will be filed later this week, said committee Chairman Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach.
Sens. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, and Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, pushed the bill that would undo a controversial 2015 law that locked in base rates for most Virginia energy consumers.
SB 9 would have allowed the State Corporation Commission to once again review and adjust utility rates, including ordering Dominion and Appalachian Power to issue refunds when necessary.
“This is not an environmental bill, this is not a pro-business bill, this is a pro-ratepayer bill,” Petersen said.
In a 13-1 vote, the senators tabled the bill indefinitely, effectively killing the legislation.
Wagner and Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, will present alternative legislation later this week.
Some speakers who favored Petersen’s bill referred to the alternative as Dominion-backed legislation.
“Let me be as clear as I can, there is no Dominion bill,” Saslaw said. “That bill’s being sponsored by Sen. Wagner and myself. What goes into that bill, we’re putting in that bill.”
Dominion is Saslaw’s top campaign donor — having contributed $318,000 to the senator over all of his campaign cycles — and company representatives are in talks with the pair about the pending legislation.
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, is also working on a related bill that would specifically pertain to Appalachian Power customers.
The 2015 rate freeze was a mistake, and allowing the utilities to write the remedy would be no different, Suetterlein said in a statement.
“Virginia families and businesses were overcharged by the unreviewed rates and their money should be returned to them and not spent on other utility projects,” he said. “Today’s vote was disappointing, but expected and I will continue working to reinstate the constitutionally required review of electric rates.”
Wagner introduced the rate freeze in 2015 as a result of former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a measure that utilities feared would raise electric rates. Petersen and his supporters have argued now that President Donald Trump has scrapped the Clean Power Plan, the rate freeze is unnecessary. State Corporation Commission officials have said the law has allowed the two energy giants to pocket millions.
“Recognizing that we have a degree of certainty, which we didn’t have two or three years ago, this is the appropriate time to go back into a re-regulated environment,” Wagner said.
He has accepted $99,485 in campaign contributions from Dominion in past election cycles.
The largely pro-Dominion committee also killed a bill by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, that would have given landowners additional rights in the pipeline surveying process.
A representative from Dominion, the company behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, was one of several pro-natural gas groups to speak against the bill. Several pipeline opponents from Southwest Virginia and conservation groups supported the legislation that would have required surveyors to inform landowners of the date and time they would enter the private property.
Edwards’ bill, a companion bill to one presented by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, died on a 12-1 vote with one abstention.
Southwest Virginia lawmakers have also presented several other pipeline-related bills in Virginia’s House of Delegates.