Virginia Lawmakers Fight EPA Over State Power

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OUTWARD BOUND: Even though it’s not burned in Virginia, coal shipments from the port of Norfolk, shown here, are big business for the state.
OUTWARD BOUND: Even though it’s not burned in Virginia, coal shipments from the port of Norfolk, shown here, are big business for the state.
OUTWARD BOUND: Even though it’s not burned in Virginia, coal shipments from the port of Norfolk, shown here, are big business for the state.

The specter of increased electricity costs and loss of state sovereignty is fueling a battle over energy policy at the Virginia General Assembly. State Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, is taking on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Clean Power Plan” with bills that would:

  • Require the State Corporation Commission to approve the closure of any power plan while protecting customers from higher rates stemming from the EPA rules.
  • Authorize the General Assembly to sue the EPA, using funds from the state Attorney General’s office.

Wagner’s SB 1349 passed the Senate on Friday with the support of the state’s largest utility, Dominion Power, as well as the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the state NAACP and a majority of Democrats.

“This measure would reduce the rates for residential customers by about 5 percent,” camber President Barry DuVal said. “Industrial customers could see prices fall about 10 percent.”

“During the five-year rate freeze, Dominion shareholders, not the customers, bear the risk of plant retirements,” DuVal said.

The bill also temporarily loosens SCC oversight of Dominion, allowing the utility more flexibility to shuffle its portfolios.

Dominion spokesman David Botkins called the measure a “compromise.”

“Some states – such as Virginia and North Carolina – are treated unfairly in the (EPA) proposal because of the ‘greater and unreasonable’ reductions required in carbon dioxide emissions rates relative to other nearby states.” the utility said.

The SCC estimates the EPA rules will tack on at least $5.5 billion in compliance costs and $2.1 billion to prematurely close coal-fired power stations.

Wagner’s two-pronged strategy may be the last line of defense against tougher EPA rules.Bracing for a showdown over federally imposed carbon emission rules, Wagner said he also wants to give the General Assembly legal resources to fight the EPA. Wagner’s Senate Joint Resolution 308remains stalled in committee.

SB 1442, which would have blocked spending by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Department of Environmental Quality until multiple lawsuits against the EPA are resolved, died in the Senate.

State Sen. John Watkins, R-Midlothian, meanwhile, stunned consumer advocates by gutting state and consumer protections initially contained in his SB 1365.

“You might as well call it the McAuliffe-Watkins bill,” energy consultant Randy Randol told Watchdog.org in an interview. “Voting for the Watkins bill is like voting for a rate increase.”

Watkins, who is retiring this year, has angered fellow Republicans for straying from the party line.

Randol – along with Americans For Prosperity, small businesses and tea party groups — supports Delegate Israel O’Quinn’s HB 2291.

The Bristol Republican’s plan would require legislative approval before any DEQ emissions plans could be submitted for EPA approval.

But O’Quinn’s bill may be dead, too. Speaker Bill Howell, R-Falmouth, ruled Monday that because the measure also calls for a study, it was introduced too late. The bill’s only lifeline would be to add it to Wagner’s SB 1349.

Washington’s Clean Power Plan aims to sharply reduce pollution from power plants, requiring Virginia to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 38 percent by 2030. Dominion has warned that it might have to retire many of its coal-fired power plants to comply.

Though environmental groups support the EPA gambit, Randol said the coalition with consumers and minority groups has fractured.

“These (EPA) rules hurt poor people most,” said Randol, who calls the EPA rules a “backdoor energy tax.”

Kenric Ward is a national correspondent for Watchdog.org and chief of its Virginia Bureau. Contact him at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward