Democratic Del. Hala Ayala of Prince William County accepted more than $100,000 from environmental groups and says she's eager to cut Virginia's carbon emissions and reduce electricity prices. Not all Democrats see the environment as their top priority.
Virginia Democrats swept into power in the state's General Assembly on campaign promises to tighten gun laws. But another force went almost unnoticed: environmental groups, whose donations made them the largest single-issue donors in this year's elections. They gave $6 million, mostly to Democrats, which is more than gun control and abortion rights advocates combined. Now, these green groups want sweeping change.
Some of the donations came from national organizations like the League of Conservation Voters, Michael Bloomberg's Beyond Carbon Fund and the Sierra Club. But the largest single contribution — a third of all environmental campaign contributions in Virginia — came from one donor: Charlottesville-based hedge fund manager Michael Bills.
He gave more than $2 million independently and through his political action committee, Clean Virginia. He donated specifically to candidates who refused to accept contributions from the power company Dominion Energy. He also supports banning public utilities from political contributions, an idea that's failed to pass in past legislative sessions but which could get traction with the new Democratic majority.
"When we talk environmental issues, of course there's a wide range, from toxic pollutants to transportation issues. But utilities and energy production is an absolutely key aspect of the transition to a clean economy," said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia. "You can't address that without addressing the elephant in the room, which is Dominion energy."
Gilmore said Dominion has too much influence and the result has been a stunted move to renewable energy. Only about 4% of Dominion's electricity in Virginia comes from renewables, while other states like neighboring North Carolina have encouraged a robust solar energy program with tax credits.
Richmond-based energy attorney Will Reisinger says this derives from Dominion's political influence.
"Traditionally, Dominion Energy has been the largest campaign contributor, and they've been able to generally write the laws that regulate their own rate," Reisinger said. "A lot of people are tired of that, and you're seeing more environmental interests and more clean energy interests participating in the legislative process."
Katharine Bond, vice president for public policy at Dominion, said targeting the utility is a mistake, and that her company is working to benefit of Virginians.
"We are focused on providing affordable, reliable and increasingly cleaner energy," Bond said.
Bond said the company is working to address climate change. She said Dominion is building the largest offshore wind facility in the U.S., near Hampton Roads. It's also doing a study on the possibility of a solar field near Dulles Airport. At the same time, Dominion is also arguing in the Supreme Court for the right to build a natural gas pipeline under the Appalachian Trail. Bond said this is all part of the same plan, to move away from coal and toward sources that emit less carbon.
"We are using more solar and wind going forward, but those resources don't operate around the clock," Bond said. "Nuclear for example and other sources are going to be very important as we transition to a clean energy future."
Bond did not give a date for when Dominion might decommission its coal fleet, but suggested the utility could reduce its emissions completely by 2050 by offsetting its coal plants with electric vehicles.
A number of state legislators want to see Dominion move faster, and they're getting support from donors like Michael Bills.
Democratic Delegate Hala Ayala of Prince William County received more than $120,000 in donations from Bills and other environmental groups. She has rejected Dominion money since 2017, when she first ran for her House seat.
"We signed a pledge that we would not take Dominion money, and said we're going to work toward having renewables," Ayala noted.
She said she is also focused on lowering electricity costs for consumers, and she'd like to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, an East Coast carbon-cutting pact. Republicans blocked Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam from joining RGGI last year.
"We were in the minority for 20-plus years, and we feel a sense of pride and excitement and we're celebrating our win and the progress we can make," Ayala said.
Ayala is part of a diverse and ambitious class of Democratic lawmakers now in the majority in both chambers in Richmond. However, not all Democrats are united on which issues should top the agenda.
Democratic Del. Luke Torian accepted campaign funding from Dominion Energy even as newer lawmakers from his party turned it down. "It is always good for people to be at the table," he said.
Del. Luke Torian of Prince William County will be the first African American lawmaker to chair the House Appropriations Committee. Like many senior Democratic lawmakers, he took money from Dominion. In fact, the utility was his top donor, contributing $38,000.
"I accepted contributions from Dominion because I believe it is always good for people to be at the table when decisions are being made," he said.
Torian said his priorities are passing a budget and improving education and transportation.
"Will I support good, sound legislation that addresses the environment? Obviously I will," he said. "But someone else is going to carry that water."
Lawmakers are already filing bills ahead of the January legislative session. One would ban campaign contributions from public utilities like Dominion, a measure that would mark a sea change in Virginia politics. Debate over that bill will likely highlight differences not just between Democrats and Republicans, but also among Democrats. Whatever the result, environmental groups will be watching.