Recently, State Senator Scott Surovell wrote an op-ed which noted that, in addition to the GOP-controlled Virginia General Assembly failing to pass a budget, they also “failed to elect a commissioner to the State Corporation Commission.” Why should you care? Because, as Sen. Surovell explains, the SCC:
…is probably the most powerful entity in Virginia that you may never have heard of. It regulates public utilities, insurance, banking, predatory lenders, and other business activities. It largely decides how much you pay for electricity, gas, water, sewer, and health, auto, and life insurance, and is where Virginians appeal when their insurance claim is denied. Sometimes called “the fourth branch of government,” the SCC arguably touches our daily lives more than any other institution in the commonwealth and is the only thing standing between 8 million Virginians and dozens of monopolies.
Thanks to a 2012 Supreme Court of Virginia opinion, the SCC is also completely immune from the Freedom of Information Act and operates with very little government oversight or transparency to the public. That is why who sits on the SCC is absolutely critical.
When the legislature fails to elect someone to a vacancy, the Constitution of Virginia tells the governor to step up to the plate.
So now, it’s apparently up to Gov. Northam to appoint a new SCC commissioner to replace the former commissioner James Dimitri, who recently retired. This appointment, as Sen. Surovell notes, will have a major impact on Virginia in a number of ways, one of the most important being our state’s energy future.
Think about it; would you like to see Virginia end up saddled with a bunch more environmentally destructive and economically irrational fossil fuel projects, or would you greatly prefer a rapid transition to a prosperous, clean energy economy? A complete no-brainer, right? Well, not if Gov. Northam makes a bad appointment to the SCC — someone like this tool of Dominion Energy, (former Sen. John Watkins) for instance, being pushed by another tool of Dominion Energy, Sen. Frank Wagner.
What’s wrong with former Sen. John Watkins, you ask? Where to begin??? First, let’s provide some context on how clean energy is doing these days in Virginia. In short, clean energy is no longer an emerging market in Virginia, but a rapidly growing industry. Just look at the numbers: 1) Virginia saw 10% growth in solar jobs year over year from 2016 to 2017; 2) corporate leaders such as Microsoft and Amazon are using innovative new deals to bring renewable energy onto the grid, with more than 650 megawatts (MW) in operation or under development; and 3) there is an appetite for much more wind and solar, with Apex Clean Energy having nearly 500 MW of wind and solar in development, Cypress Creek Renewable Energy having over 100 MW of solar in development, and other Virginia based developers with close to 400 MW of solar in the queue.
Looking at these numbers and growth rates, it’s clear that Virginia can become a leader in the deployment of clean energy. But to do that, we need forward-thinking leaders to get us there. Unfortunately, former Sen. John Watkins represents backward thinking — the past, not the future, of Virginia energy.
Now, just a few facts about John Watkins and why he is just about THE LAST person we’d want in this important job.
- As a senator, Watkins’ war chest was stockpiled with cash from these very entities that he now seeks to regulate. Over the course of his Senate career, Watkins accepted $65,060 from Dominion Energy, $28,000 from Appalachian Electric Power Co, and $16,580 from Columbia Gas of Virginia. These three companies donated more than $109,000 to his campaigns. All of this largess came about, by the way, despite Watkins having only faced two challengers in six elections. So it’s not like he needed the money – but Dominion, Appalachian, etc. sure wanted to give it to him! Gee, wonder why…hmmmm.
- Watkins has a long track record of opposing legislation that would have strengthened Virginia’s position on clean energy deployment. Among the many votes he took during his years serving his Dominion Energy masters in the State Senate were…
- In 2009, Watkins voted in opposition to renewable portfolio goals for Virginia utilities (House Bill 1994); voted to allow utilities to charge renewable energy customers stand by rates (House Bill 2152); voted in opposition to the voluntary Energy Efficiency Resource Standard, or EERS (House Bill 2506); and voted to kill a mandatory EERS (Senate Bill 1447).
- In 2010, Watkins voted in opposition to research and development of advanced energy technologies (Senate Bill 729); voted in opposition to a mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS (Senate Bill 450); and voted in opposition to time of use rates (Senate Bill 429).
- In 2012, Watkins voted to weaken Virginia’s already-weak, voluntary RPS by allowing 20% of the goal to be reached by using credits from research and development (Senate Bill 413); and voted in opposition to a measure that would have included energy efficiency in Integrated Resource Plan processes, and also would have accounted for cost of carbon (Senate Bill 381). Grrrrr.
- In 2013, Watkins voted to increase the earnings collar from 50 basis points to 70 basis points for electric utilities, allowing those utilities to over earn .2% more without having to issue refunds (Senate Bill 1339).
- And in 2015, Watkins voted to support the infamous Dominion Rate Freeze (Senate Bill 1349).
The bottom line is that John Watkins would be a horrible addition to the SCC, and one that Gov. Ralph Northam shouldn’t even think about putting there. To the contrary, given the massive potential for clean energy in Virginia, and the urgency – for powerful environmental and economic reasons – of moving to a clean energy economy as rapidly as possible, the next appointment to the SCC must, at the bare minimum, be fair-minded and friendly to clean energy interests. Dominion Energy tool John Watkins is most certainly NOT that person.