By Ivy Main
Main is conservation chair of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.
In August, the Virginia Supreme Court joined the ranks of the governor, the Department of Environmental Quality, the State Corporation Commission, and most of the Virginia legislature in siding with Dominion Energy and its Atlantic Coast Pipeline against Virginia consumers, environmentalists and rural property owners.
The court ruled against the Sierra Club in our effort to force the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to review the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s effect on ratepayers before the pipeline is built, rather than afterwards. We urged that the Virginia Affiliates Act requires public utilities such as Dominion Energy Virginia to submit “contracts or arrangements” with affiliated companies such as its parent company, the controlling partner in the pipeline, to the SCC for approval before they take effect.
Although the Affiliates Act is clear on its face, the SCC had refused to enforce it, and the Court used contorted logic to side with the SCC.
The result is bad news for customers of Dominion, which has obligated them to pay for the use of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline even though a different pipeline already serves Dominion’s power plants under long-term contracts at a markedly lower price. When the Atlantic Coast Pipeline starts carrying gas from the fracking fields of West Virginia, customers will be paying twice — and paying much more — for the same service.
Why are Virginia’s leaders refusing to stand up for Virginia residents? The answer lies partly in the political power of Dominion Energy, which has been detailed at length in this paper and others. Dominion is the largest corporate donor to political campaigns in the state, giving roughly equally to both parties. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, vpap.org, the $52,000 the company gave to Gov. Ralph Northam’s inaugural committee was the second-highest amount received by the committee, behind only the Democratic PAC.
Dominion also keeps a stable of lobbyists active in Richmond; one legislator told me that during the long weeks of wrangling over this year’s huge energy bill, which the SCC now says will cost consumers more than $5 billion, Dominion lobbyists were in her office every single day.
But there’s another reason Virginia’s leaders have rolled over in the face of Dominion’s destructive and expensive pipeline, and that’s our government’s long history of favoring business interests over those of ordinary residents. Every year our leaders celebrate or wring their hands over any movement up or down on the list of the most business-friendly states. Heaven forbid we cede a spot at the top by limiting a corporation’s ability to destroy our environment and exploit consumers.
A strong economy is necessary to maintaining a good standard of living for all Virginians, but there is no reason to accept environmental destruction as the price of progress. Job growth in the energy sector today is driven by the solar and wind industries, not fossil fuels. More importantly, a thriving business sector is fully compatible with a strong regulatory environment.
The experience of West Virginia, Kentucky, and even Southwest Virginia ought to be enough of a warning. Ceding unbridled power to coal barons hasn’t produced a strong economy in coal country; it has left a legacy of pollution, poverty, and poor health. Those who believe fracked gas and pipelines are different from coal are missing the point.
They are also kidding themselves and everyone else by swallowing the gas industry’s propaganda about the economic and environmental impacts of fracked gas. Even the editors of Richmond’s major newspaper repeat the discredited claim that fracked gas is a solution to climate change. It’s not: natural gas may release “only” half the CO2 emissions of coal, but leaking methane from drilling wells, pipelines and compressor stations makes gas an equally potent contributor to climate change. To credit shale gas for declining carbon emissions in the U.S. while ignoring its other climate impacts is wishful thinking at best, dishonest at worse.
It is certainly true that cheap fracked gas drove energy prices lower over the past decade and put a lot of coal plants out of business. But it is also well known in the industry that fracking companies don’t make money, never have, and need to sell ever more gas just to keep paying interest on the loans that keep them afloat. Low natural gas prices are not sustainable as interest rates rise. Meanwhile, competition from solar and wind means gas companies can’t just raise prices.
The gas boom will go bust unless gas companies such asDominion Energy can lock customers into long-term contracts or export it to overseas buyers who will pay more. That’s Dominion’s game plan. It may be good for Dominion, but it sure isn’t good for Virginia.