Kate Wellingon / Creative Commons

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on the campaign trail in 2009.

With term running out, activists push Virginia governor on fossil fuels

As Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s term winds down, environmental and property rights activists are pushing him to use his final months in office to pull back on natural gas – a stance they say poses financial risks to ratepayers and negates his achievements on cleaner energy.

Saturday’s “March on the Mansion,” organized by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), is to call out McAuliffe on his support for offshore drilling and two proposed natural gas pipelines along with his cooperation with Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility, and its affiliated pipeline subsidiary. Collectively the companies wield significant influence throughout all branches of state government.

The importance of what McAuliffe elects to do in 2017, his final year, is compounded by the absence of a consumer advocate office, a utility commission appointed by lawmakers and ties between elected officials and monopoly utilities and natural gas companies. That, lobbyists say, handicaps what single-term governors can accomplish and gives corporate interests the upper hand.

Without a state consumer advocate per se, it is often left to organizations such as CCAN, the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council and a network of community organizations to voice consumers’ concerns.

“We’re in a situation where our utilities are pretty much calling all the shots, setting things up in the General Assembly so they get what they want,” said Irene Leech, current president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council and an associate professor of consumer studies at Virginia Tech.

CCAN issued a “report card” earlier this year giving McAuliffe a D+ for, the group says, moving Virginia too slowly toward a clean energy economy while neglecting to guard consumers’ pocketbooks and homeowners’ rights. The report drew some pushback from environmental and clean energy advocates, concerned it will antagonize the governor.

Nevertheless, “we’ve been hearing from our members how disappointed they are in McAuliffe. We felt we had no choice but to break with him,” said Mike Tidwell, CCAN’s founder and executive director.

Tidwell said CCAN is working to influence McAuliffe’s legacy while he still has time to do something about it. Because Virginia governors can serve only one term, the 2017 General Assembly that runs for about six weeks beginning in early January will be his last real opportunity to enact new legislation.

Among the other environmental groups joining in Saturday’s March according to Tidwell are Appalachian Voices, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Mothers Out Front, Potomac Riverkeepers and 350.org’s Loudoun County and Central Virginia chapters.

By contrast, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club chose this week to laud the efforts of 28 lawmakers for votes to protect Virginia’s environment. The head of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, Michael Town, said while Saturday’s march may be warranted, its focus should be on Dominion, not Gov. McAuliffe.

“They are responsible for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, billions in new fossil fuel infrastructure to be paid for by Virginia ratepayers for decades to come, and for the snail-paced move toward clean energy development,” Town said.

Glen Besa, who retired earlier this year as the Executive Director of the state’s Sierra Club chapter, said what makes Virginia among the toughest states to fight for cleaner energy and a safer environment is what he calls a “revolving door” between Dominion and the executive branch of government, regardless of whether the governor is a Democrat or a Republican. For example, he notes, Dominion Virginia Power President Bob Blue was a senior policy aide to then-Gov. Mark Warner from 2002-2005.

Dominion’s influences extends to both sides of the aisle in the General Assembly. In addition to making campaign contributions to a wide swath of both Republicans and Democrats, the real contributions that secure Dominion’s influence, Besa said, are those it makes to party caucus leaders in the Senate and House of Delegates. Those leaders, in turn, instruct members to vote a certain way which often aligns with what Dominion wants.

Community organizers such as Sharon Ponton of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League hope Saturday’s march – in the face of 100-plus degree heat forecast for Richmond – will persuade McAuliffe and at least some lawmakers to listen to constituents whom she says are being put in harm’s way. “He can help get answers to our questions. He hasn’t been doing that,” Ponton said.

Pressure over coal ash disposal plans that grew in part from a modest march in Richmond in February contributed to a compromise Dominion agreed to with environmental attorneys, according to Sharon Ponton, a community organizer for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. That pact is designed to better protect the James River near Richmond and the Potomac River alongside Northern Virginia over how Dominion dewaters its ash basins.

And while the governor obviously has a lot on his plate, Cat McCue, Director of Communications at Appalachian Voices, says the issue should be a high priority.

“This is really about people who have everything at stake: their homes, their health and their electric bills, for now and future generations.”

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