Bills to Protect Virginia Landowners in Pipeline Cases Fail

By Ben Burstein, Capital News Service

Landowners fighting to keep their property from being taken by pipeline building companies will continue footing the legal bills after two bills failed in the House.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said he introduced the bills to give landowners who don’t want pipeline construction on their land a fair chance against Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, Southern Gas and other companies involved in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

SB 1404 would have required pipeline companies to pick the costs incurred by homeowners in eminent domain legal battles.

SB 1403 sought to amend state law and require the entities acquiring the property to pay all costs of court proceedings. It also would have required pipeline companies to provide compensation for homeowners. The compensation would have been at least 25 percent more than the company’s initial offer for the land.

Because the pipeline project was approved by the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, the companies may invoke eminent domain — a right given to the government to take property for public use — if landowners refuse to accept compensation for their property.

“The pipeline companies have all the power, in the General Assembly and in condemning the property of small landowners,” Petersen stated after the bills failed. “My bills would have leveled the playing field in a small way. The House just missed it. We’ll be back.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a 600-mile underground pipeline that would deliver natural gas from West Virginia to the southwest region of the state and North Carolina.

Over 85 percent of affected landowners have entered into easement agreements to allow construction, according to the project website. Those landowners received compensation. The remaining easements needed to begin construction are being challenged in court. Such legal battles have halted construction. The pipeline was scheduled to start operating this year, but the new estimated completion date is between 2020 and 2021.

Residents have also lost property in the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline project that runs from West Virginia to southwest Virginia. Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Dillon allowed Mountain Valley to seize private property through eminent domain. A group of landowners have requested a hearing from the U.S. Supreme Court, but it is uncertain whether a hearing will be granted.

On Dec. 7, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals suspended a permit allowing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to cut through two national forests. Dominion plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The House denied Petersen’s request to have changes to his bills restored to their original form. House amendments would have made the bill effective only on proceedings that started before July 1 of this year. Both bills failed as introduced. The senator plans to try again in the General Assembly’s 2020 session.

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Roanoke Times: Bill to allow UVa-Wise to offer reduced tuition rate to Appalachian students passes House

RICHMOND — A bill that would allow the University of Virginia’s College at Wise to offer reduced tuition rates to any students from the Appalachian region passed the House of Delegates on Tuesday.

HB 1666 from Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, came at the request of the college, which is hoping that by offering lowered tuition rates to out-of-state students, it can combat declining enrollment.

The federally defined Appalachian region extends from northern Alabama to southern New York, covering all or part of 13 states. Offering a reduced rate to students in that region would bring those students close to or equal to receiving the in-state tuition rate.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, spoke in favor of the bill because he said boosting the enrollment would be valuable to the coalfields community that is looking to revive its economy.

“It’s a beautiful community, it’s a beautiful campus, and we’ve got to get bodies onto that campus,” he said.

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Previously on the Virginia Mercury: Bill meant to level the playing field for pipeline takings passes Senate

New legislation that would level the playing field for property owners in an eminent domain taking lawsuit sailed through the Senate on Thursday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, would eliminate provisions in the assessments of costs in eminent domain proceedings for some condemnors, such as public service companies like utilities. Property owners would not simply get “just compensation,” but they’d also get costs of appraisal, expert witnesses and other expenses.

It would apply to the two major pipeline projects — the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines — that are currently engaged in eminent domain litigation.

“The pipeline companies should not get preferential treatment under our condemnation laws,” Petersen said in a statement. “My bill will level the playing playing field in favor of the landowner, the small business, or the farmer if a pipeline comes across their land.”

Bill meant to level the playing field for pipeline takings passes Senate

Chap Petersen column: Real-world experience: A proposal to cure senior-itis

By Chap Petersen

In my small law practice, I hire a lot of young people. I need interns for research, assistants to answer phones, and paralegals to prepare cases. Every summer, I hire summer assistants right out of high school. Some of these kids work out great, but a lot of them arrive in the workplace unprepared for professional life.

For many of these young people, professionalism, timeliness, consistency, and competency are inconsistent at best. I am not blaming the kids. I am blaming the way our current K-12 system operates.

Back in the ancient times (known as the 1980s) when I was in high school, we all worked. Almost everyone had a part-time job during the school year, and if you didn’t, you definitely had a summer job.

That experience of employment, and the responsibility it entailed, prepared young people for entering the professional workforce and, for some select students, moving on to higher education.

These days, due to changes in the economy and the current drive for extracurricular activities, most high school students don’t work.

These days, most of the professions formerly monopolized by high school students — mowing lawns, waiting tables, babysitting — are currently handled by adults, many of whom are recent immigrants.

Meanwhile, nearly all high school students go on to at least some level of higher education. But that doesn’t prepare them for the responsibility of work when they graduate.

To address this, I’m proposing to re-tool the 12th grade for the 21st century.

We need to give students the flexibility to get out of the classroom and into real-world working situations, whether an internship, an apprenticeship, a credentialing program, or just an old-fashioned job.

By their second semester, most seniors have applied to college, or have already been accepted. So the time for academic heavy lifting is over. Moreover, a lot of senior-year coursework is not required for graduation. (Most of today’s high-achieving youngsters have completed these prerequisites ahead of time).

The end result is that senior year of high school is largely a waste of time — a drawn-out Waiting for Graduation. (As a parent of three teenagers, I know of what I speak).

Rather than having these seniors go stale in a classroom, why not get them out in the open air of a courtroom, hospital, gourmet restaurant, or automotive shop?

My bill, SB 1147, gives local school boards the freedom to award academic credit for work-based learning experiences during senior year. This unique measure will allow flexibility and adaptability for teenagers preparing to move from high school to adulthood. Groups like labor unions, public defender offices, or retail stores can provide real-world experience in showing up on time, dressing for success, and dealing with demanding customers.

SB 1147 is a cure for senior-itis. It teaches real-world skills and gets our young people out into the workforce at a time when they can learn — and we can learn from them.

Chap Petersen represents the 34th District in the Virginia Senate. Contact him at

Press Release: Senate rejects amendment to Dominion bill to bans double-charging

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia customers will be effectively double-charged for future electric infrastructure if a bill advanced by the Senate is signed into law.

SB 966, patroned by Senator Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), allows Dominion and Appalachian power companies to make customers pay twice for the same infrastructure.

According to the legislation, monopoly utilities would be able to use excess earnings from over-charges paid by customers during 2015-2019 to build new electric infrastructure like power lines or substations. The utilities could then bill customers twice for these capital projects by incorporating them into the company’s rate base for which customers are charged annually.

Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) motioned to amend the bill to ban double-charging.[1]

The vote to amend SB 966 to strip out double-charging was 13 yes, 26 no, with one Senator not voting.

In this motion, a vote yes is a vote to ban double-charging.

Yeas: Senators Black, Chase, Deeds, Ebbin, McPike, Peake, Petersen, Spurill, Stanley, Stuart, Suetterlein, and Wexton.

Nays: Senators Barker, Carrico, Chafin, Cosgrove, Dance, DeSteph, Dunnavant, Edwards, Favola, Hanger, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, Mason, McClellan, McDougle, Norment, Obenshain, Reeves, Ruff, Saslaw, Sturdevant, Surrovell, Vogel, and Wagner.

Not voting: Newman.

Following that vote, Senator Petersen attempted to amend the legislation to strip out a $50 million cap on future rate reductions. Repeatedly, at the moment of the vote, power surges crashed the voting machine, forcing Senators to cast a roll call voice vote.

The Senate of Virginia, along with most of the City of Richmond, buys its electricity from Virginia’s largest monopoly electricity provider, Dominion Energy.

[1] Analysis of the legislation by the State Corporation Commission (SCC) details the double-charging. See pages 5-6. Document attached. Feburary 7, 2018 letter from the SCC to members of the Senate.


Daily Progress: Campaign donor bill gets zapped

Give state Sen. Creigh Deeds credit for sticking to his convictions.

Mr. Deeds was one of only two lawmakers to vote for a campaign finance reform bill when it recently came up before a committee.

The bill would have ended campaign donations to lawmakers from public-service corporations like Dominion.

The objection to such donations is that customers have no choice but to do business with these public utilities, and therefore no choice in how a company translates customer payments into political lobbying. With other businesses, customers can just go elsewhere if they don’t like a company’s policies.

Additionally, some critics have argued that public utilities, which are semi-regulated by government, shouldn’t be lobbying government in any case.

These questions became more pertinent after the General Assembly passed a controversial bill in 2015 that temporarily relaxed regulations, preventing the State Corporation Commission from ordering refunds to customers if utilities earned more than an established base rate.

Lobbying likely played a large role in that decision. Hence, customers’ money, as passed along to utilities, was used to work against customers’ best interests by blocking rate refunds.

Sen. Bryce Reeves thanked the bill’s patron for bringing up these issues — but voted against the bill anyway.

Sen. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria was another nay vote. He said it wasn’t fair to pick on public service corporations: “I can’t support singling out one industry.”

But public service corporations already are singled out as a special category. That is why they are regulated by the SCC. Customers have to buy from them — just try going without electricity. Meanwhile, the companies operate as monopolies within their service areas; there is no competition and nowhere else for customers to turn (unless you’re the rare individual who can go totally off the grid). Monopolistic control gives the companies virtually all the power — which is precisely why the state imposes a level of regulation: Somebody has to protect consumers’ interests.

But when regulatory practices then are upended by the General Assembly … well, you can see why critics would be suspicious that lobbying money corrupted the established system.

Meanwhile, the utilities argued that freezing the base rate would provide budgetary stability, which in turn would allow them to better project the costs of expansion projects and then to plan financing for those projects. Among the expansion plans were several solar installations. The addition of solar and other projects was considered by those who approved the rate freeze as a fair reason for suspending the SCC’s review of consumer pricing.

The effort to reduce lobbying money in the political system is a noble one, but a hard fight. Lawmakers won’t easily give up access to a commodity that is vital to their own political futures.

This particular reform bill failed. But campaign finance reform remains a viable issue — increasingly so among voters disgusted with politics as usual. Stay tuned.

RTD: Senate committee kills bill to ban campaign donations from public-service corporations

By Patrick Wilson

Dominion Energy is the top corporate donor in Virginia politics, and lawmakers aren’t going to turn away the company’s campaign money anytime soon.

Just two of 14 lawmakers — Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath — supported a bill in committee on Tuesday that would end campaign donations to lawmakers from public-service corporations like Dominion.

Senate Bill 10 from Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, went down on a 12-2 vote in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

Petersen said the bill was necessary because customers of public monopolies have no option but to do business with them.

“These for-profit companies make donations to assembly members and then they come in and seek laws for their own benefit.”

Petersen said addressing donations from public service corporations became more urgent after lawmakers passed a controversial 2015 law that froze the base electricity rates of Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co. and temporarily stopped state regulators from ordering refunds to customers if those companies earned above their agreed-upon profit.

The law is resulting in an estimated $1 billion windfall for Dominion.

Petersen last year and again on Monday tried to undo the law but got little support.

“One of the root causes why my legislation was not successful, why we passed these underlying bills, was money had corrupted the process,” he said.

Petersen said he didn’t expect his campaign finance bill to pass. But he told his fellow lawmakers that until they take the money from public service corporations out of the General Assembly, “you will continue to get flawed legislation like the rate freeze.”

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NPR: Committee Rejects Ban on Public Utility Campaign Contributions

By Saraya Wintersmith

The Senate committee that deals with elections and conflicts of interest has voted down a measure that would’ve blocked campaign donations from public service corporations. The bill, SB 10, was a second attempt by Fairfax Senator Chap Petersen. When rolling out his legislative agenda last May, he said the donation ban would be a priority issue or him for this session.

“We need to step back and look at how much power and influence is being wielded by these monopolies,” he said. Back then, Petersen stressed that even-though Dominion Energy is often cited in talks about the issue because of its frequent, bi-partisan political campaign contributions, he doesn’t mean to bad-mouth the company or its employees.

“Let me dispel any inference – ANY inference – that Dominion or the people that work for Dominion is a bad company or that they’re doing anything nefarious. It’s not true. They’re following the law and their lobbyists are representing their clients’ interests and that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do and my hat is off to them for the great work that they’re doing. My problem is with the system that gives them too much power.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Virginia is one of 6 states that allows corporations to contribute an unlimited amount of money to state campaigns. 22 states bar corporations from contributing to political campaigns, and another 22 impose the same limits for individual and corporate contributions.

During the 2017 campaign season, more than a dozen House of Delegates candidates pledged not to take money from Dominion or Appalachian Power. 13 of those candidates won their races. Additionally, then-candidate Ralph Northam called for a ban on corporate campaign contributions in Virginia and a $10,000 cap on individual donations. Petersen echoed those thoughts when he presented the bill to the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee Tuesday evening. He bought no witnesses and said he didn’t expect the bill to pass.

“But I’m here today to tell you that I think this is an important issue and I’d appreciate your consideration,” he said. “If you could poke holes in this bill saying there are ways to get around it, you are absolutely correct – absolutely correct. I will also say that, are there first amendment issues? I’m sure someone’s going to bring that argument up, I’d say we have limits on contributions in every state, as well as at the federal level – we had someone who just ran for governor talking about prohibiting ALL corporate contributions, okay. I’m not looking to do that, I am looking at prohibiting contributions from this class of companies.”

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RTD: Powerful Senate committee kills rate-freeze repeal; awaits Saslaw’s bill

By Robert Zullo

Don’t call it Dominion’s bill.

Sen. Dick Saslaw of Fairfax, the senior Democrat on the Commerce and Labor Committee, took issue Monday with the idea that his yet-to-be introduced legislation on overhauling a regulatory regime that has allowed Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power to pocket hundreds of millions of dollars in excess profits since 2015 was not entirely his own.

The powerful panel stacked with utility-friendly lawmakers voted 13-1 to kill a bill by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, who was pushing to restore the power of state regulators to review base electric rates and refund money to ratepayers.

The vote was in deference to coming legislation by Saslaw and Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, that has the backing of the influential utility.

“Let me be as clear as I can,” Saslaw said in response to a plea from a representative for large industrial electric customers that Petersen’s legislation survive long enough for a side-by-side comparison. “There is no Dominion bill. That bill is being sponsored by Senator Wagner and myself, and what goes into that bill, we’re putting in that bill. Are we talking to them? Yes, we’re talking to them. But that is not Dominion’s bill; that’s our bill.”

Yet in remarks that hit many of the same points Dominion has made since it announced last month that it was time to “transition away” from the 2015 rate freeze, Wagner, the committee chairman, cited the need to harden the electric grid against outages and cyberattacks and incorporate more renewable energy.

“We understand that there’s money to be returned and we have legislation that will do that,” Wagner said. “We’ll be ready to talk in detail at a later date.”

In September, the State Corporation Commission reported that Dominion could have “overearned” by as much as $426 million in 2016.

Last month, it told a General Assembly commission that a typical Dominion customer has seen bills go up nearly 30 percent over the past decade, largely the result of rate-adjustment clauses, or riders, which are extra charges tacked onto bills to pay for new power plants, transmission projects and other costs.