by Ali Symons
Back in May of this year, Delegate Jennifer Boysko (HD-86) was a guest at a very well attended meeting hosted by a local grassroots climate action group. In attendance were some of the most informed and active climate advocates in Northern Virginia. I myself was there and made a Facebook Live video of almost the entire meeting. It was over an hour long. Here’s the first 20 minutes of it (also, see below).
The most urgent matter at the forefront of all our minds, coming into the meeting, was to figure out — with hopefully the help of Delegate Boysko as a representative of the Democratic caucus of the Virginia House of Delegates — how we might get through to our state legislators about the urgency for the need to transition our electrical grid to distributed renewable energy sources as fast as feasible. We also hoped that she could help us figure out how to persuade them to advocate against the building of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley fracked gas pipelines, and any other future investments in fossil fuel infrastructure.
At the heart of all this, of course, is the malign, corrupting influence of Dominion Energy over the Virginia legislature and the executive branch. Dominion Energy is both a for-profit corporation beholden to its shareholders AND a (theoretically) “regulated” monopoly public utility — a monopoly that has been able to make contributions to our elected officials and Board members of the state agencies that are supposed to be regulating them. Dominion’s special interest “dominion” over the legislature has allowed it to push through legislation the company itself drew up to weaken the regulations that are supposed to keep Dominion in check.
The special access Dominion’s lobbyists, etc. have to our state representatives has also, as you can see and hear discussed in the video, allowed them to brainwash our legislators with false and misleading information about the state of our electrical grid, what is possible (or not possible) to achieve, and the current status of the technology/cost of renewables and battery storage. In effect, our monopoly public utility has “monopoly” access to our legislators — again, the very people who are supposed to be regulating Dominion!
Unfortunately, what Delegate Boysko shared with us at this meeting, where it relates to her involvement in energy policy, Dominion’s influence, and addressing climate change, left us even more discouraged than ever. If even Democratic legislators like Boysko, who are supposed to be pro environment and recognize the imminent threat of climate change, are so unwilling to take action where they are free to do so, what hope do we have left? What options for action are there left for us? Though continuing to raise public awareness and educate the public about climate change and the benefits of a clean energy economy is important, we ultimately need our elected officials to take decisive action through public policy and legislation. There is no other way for us to effectively address climate change in the 12 years that we have been told we have left to take action.
Here are some of the highlights and takeaways from the meeting:
- At 11:18 – Delegate Boysko explains her position on political donations and how they do not influence her legislating. Her view is not unlike many other legislators who take corporate donations. All of them will tell you that it doesn’t affect how they vote. [more on this subject below]
- At 13:09 – “…. one thing is we all use energy. I mean, I use energy and when it goes out I get frustrated and angry. It seems to me until we know we have the ability to meet everybody’s needs off the grid or, you know, making renewable energy something that’s really self-sufficient for everyone, then we’re in a bind.” Boysko does not seem to understand how a modern, mixed-source, distributed renewable electrical grid system would work or what it would look like. For starters, nobody is talking about needing to live purely “off the grid.” Also worth noting is that if you have solar panels on your roof and battery storage, if there’s a power outage due to a thunderstorm or whatever, you still have power that you can generate and consume yourself. Does Del. Boysko understand that?
- At 17:05 – “I have background in local government. I have focused on women’s issues regarding reproductive health, equality …. those were the things that motivated me to run. Social justice issues. I realize that the environment is a big part of social justice but I can’t do everything. I could come in here and pretend that I was an expert, say yes to everything that you’re saying, but that would not be honest of me. I’m trying to be honest with you. Yesterday I had 5 events, today I did 4. I haven’t had a chance to return phone calls today because I’ve been in the car going from Loudoun Co. to Centerville, back to Loudoun Co., and now here (Reston). I don’t take a day off. I understand that this (climate change) is very important to you, but I have 84,000 constituents who care about transportation, healthcare, education ….. I’m doing the best I can. I’m sorry that’s not enough for you.” OK, we can all appreciate that our state legislators work very hard for very little pay ($17,000 for Delegates). However, it is completely mind boggling to hear a legislator say that they’re a single-issue legislator and too bad about the other issues out there. Of course we don’t expect legislators to be an expert on every single subject when they start out, but after some time they ought to have the motivation and intellectual curiosity to pick up enough of a subject matter that they have to legislate on that has real consequences for the lives of not just her constituents but all Virginians; and in the case of climate change, the world. In the case of Del. Boysko, that doesn’t seem to be the case, sad to say.
What the discussion in this video demonstrates is how the special access big corporate donors like Dominion Energy has to many legislators like Delegate Boysko works. In this case, as Delegate Boysko clearly reveals in the video, Dominion has thoroughly monopolized their perception and (mis)understanding of the subject of monopoly public utility regulation, renewable energy, how the electrical grid system works, and the Virginia energy sector.
Delegate Boysko might think that she is making her voting decisions based on the best available information she has on the subject, but if the main source of information she has is Dominion lobbyists — because, let’s face it, when they come knocking on her door as one of the biggest donors to her and her party, she’s not going to turn them away — that’s a serious, serious problem. And when you’re a busy legislator having to absorb so much information on hundreds of bills in a given legislative session, you only have so much time to meet with citizen advocates and other independent experts.
(Granted, they should be spending more time in between sessions getting up to speed and educating themselves on any number of subject matter they are not well informed on, but then we have an election every year in Virginia and all they seem to be doing is fundraising and campaigning either for their colleagues or themselves.)
When you give priority access to certain groups of people, those are the primary views, opinions, and information you are going to receive. Delegate Boysko, like many of her colleagues who receive contributions from Dominion, is also under the lobbying pressure of her own party leadership to vote a certain way. And the party leadership is going to ensure that the money keeps flowing from their biggest donors by looking out for their interests. Thus this is how the influence of Dominion, and other big corporate donors, work their tendril grip on elected officials they give to. It is not that they dictate to the legislators how they must vote, but they exert their influence through the special access they have to their ears and the selective (mis)information they feed to them. For a legislator like Delegate Boysko, who openly admitted that she is not up to speed on environmental or climate issues (nor on electric power grid issues, clearly), she is easily susceptible to Dominion’s misinformation.
Though I commend Del. Boysko for the subsequent efforts she has made since this event to become better informed on the issues of climate change (e.g., helping to sponsor a Climate Reality presentation), as well as on renewable energy and the Virginia energy sector (e.g., by hosting an energy forum in Herndon that included renewable energy experts, a Dominion lobbyist, and an electric public utility think tank that is a mouthpiece for the fossil fuel industry), it remains to be seen if these efforts will translate into real results in her legislative work. I really do hope so. It’s difficult to be too confident these days, especially when our own Democratic Governor, the de facto Democratic party leader in the state, is moving forward with two massive unnecessary fracked gas pipeline projects that are the complete opposite of the direction we need to be taking on climate (and when outrageous stuff like this just happened!).
NB: Only 20:25 minutes of the original video survived as, due to unknown circumstances, some months after the event my Facebook Live video disappeared from my account. Luckily, a friend managed to download this 20:25 mins before it was lost and posted it on YouTube. Also worth noting, a day or so after the event, the host of the event asked me to take down my video from their Facebook group at Delegate Boysko’s request. Boysko claimed that she was not aware that the event was being recorded, even though I sat just a couple of feet away from her and was very openly holding up my cellphone that was on a tripod. So clearly, Boysko wanted the video down because she didn’t like it, not because she didn’t know it was being recorded.