Pipeline Prospects: Long-Term Implications

Aug 4, 2017

Dominion Energy's headquarters in Downtown Richmond.
Credit Electric Light & Power; elp.com

Dominion Energy has long been considered the most influential corporation in Virginia. Over the last 20 years, it has given nearly 11 million dollars to candidates running for office in this state, but Dominion may be losing its grip on lawmakers. 

The company’s decision to dump treated coal ash water into the James River, to build power lines near historic Jamestown and to build a pipeline through national forests and private property has angered many voters.  In the final part of our series on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Sandy Hausman looks at the downside for Dominion.

If you watch TV in Virginia, you’ve probably seen some flashy commercials for Dominion Energy.

Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby says the ads are needed to inform the public.

“We just changed our name, and we’re moving very aggressively towards cleaner energy, and so we think it’s important that our customers know what we’re doing to keep their electricity reliable and affordable and also cleaner.”

Hausman: “Is it also an attempt to improve your public image given that you’ve taken some hits lately on things like coal ash and the pipelines?”  

Ruby: “Sandy, I’ve answered your question.”

But those who follow politics in Virginia have their doubts.  Stephen Farnsworth is a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.

“There’s no question that Dominion appreciates that their privileged position in Virginia Politics is less secure than it has been historically," he says.  "Any company that faces the prospect of diminished influence would go to some trouble to protect its brand, and Dominion Power is doing exactly that.”

In Virginia’s June primary dozens of candidates announced they would not take campaign contributions from Dominion or Appalachian Power – among them Democrat Tom Perriello and Republican Corey Stewart. 

"The gerrymandered nature of Virginia's legislative districts means that most of the incumbents, and that means mostly Republican incumbents, will be returned to Richmond."

Neither candidate won, but both had respectable showings, and Quentin Kidd, a professor of political science at Christopher Newport University, says he’s not surprised.

“I think the typical voter out there, since 2008, is skeptical of corporate power and skeptical of power that seems unchecked or uncheckable," he explains. "That’s a part of where this skepticism comes from.  People are skeptical of big corporations giving big amounts of money to candidates all over, whether in Virginia or in Washington, D.C.”

Kidd says November’s election is important for Dominion, because next year’s legislature could vote to roll back a law that took away the power of the state to examine the utility’s books.  If the company earned a profit above the authorized rate of 10.7%, customers could be entitled to refunds.

“If, in fact, Democrats are able to pick up seats, and if among the seats that they pick up some of these people wouldn’t take Dominion money, and those new legislators decide to make it an issue, I could see a Republican or two come along and say, ‘ Let’s go ahead and roll it back.’  I can see it becoming bi-partisan like that.”

Stephen Farnsworth doesn’t think that will happen, because Republicans in the General Assembly have been steadfast in their support for Dominion.

“The gerrymandered nature of Virginia’s legislative districts means that most of the incumbents, and that means mostly Republican incumbents, will be returned to Richmond,” he explains.

But political organizer Josh Stanfield sees a new coalition of voters forming. 

He notes a strong turnout for Tom Perriello – the anti-pipeline Democrat – in Nelson County, an area that has historically supported the GOP.

“There was increased Democratic activity! Therefore there is the possibility for a broader Democratic coalition in Virginia, such that Republicans would not have a shot at any statewide office ever again when compounded with demographic changes,” he says.

He’s now started a grass roots group called Activate Virginia.  Its main goal – getting Dominion out of politics.