Virginia’s Energy Kingpin Could Finally Face A Reckoning Over Race
Summer 2014 was an exciting and nostalgic season for the most powerful unelected man in Virginia.
In May of that year, Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II made his cinematic debut with “Field of Lost Shoes,” a Civil War drama following the victorious Confederate cadets at the Battle of New Market. He had co-written, produced and financed the film. In addition to being a lawyer and the boss of a $62 billion Richmond, Virginia-based utility that serves 6.7 million people in eight states, Farrell is a history buff who said he pulled many of the movie’s lines straight from diaries and speeches of the time. Historians, however, say he added one glaring fiction to his film: depicting the young, white Rebel heroes as would-be abolitionists, who were either apathetic about or opposed to slavery.
Historical criticism aside, Farrell was still riding high on that premiere when, in September, he arrived in a blue suit at the historic state capitol building in Richmond to accept then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas project that Farrell hoped would define his legacy as one of his generation’s great industrialists.
“In the 19th century, we had railroads, the steam engine and the beginning of steel manufacturing. In the 20th century, we had the automobile assembly line, the internet and ― from my perspective, the most important of all ― the electric grid,” Farrell told reporters at the press conference, held on the hottest day in Richmond that year. “In the 21st century, the expansion of our natural gas pipeline network looks to be one of those key infrastructure developments.”
Six years later, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project has been torpedoed by a mix of changing economics, accusations of environmental racism and climate recklessness. The collapse of the pipeline coincides with a national movement against anti-Black racism that has had particular resonance in Virginia, once home to the capital of the Confederacy. Critics of the racial impact of Dominion’s actions under Farrell’s leadership hope that, together with the financial loss from the pipeline project, the current political ferment could finally end his 14-year reign.
Under Farrell, Dominion has become a national symbol of how political corruption and monopoly power can undercut efforts to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. That worked for Farrell so long as Dominion’s cash could buy it the acquiescence of state legislatures. But now Virginia and many other states are looking to transition to 100% carbon-free electricity, and Dominion’s shareholders are in revolt. In May, nearly 47% of those shareholders voted in favor of a proposal to require an independent board chair, which would have given Farrell ― who currently serves as both chairman and chief executive ― a boss. In early July, Dominion’s stock price plunged more than 11% after the company and its partner, North Carolina-based Duke Energy, announced the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s cancellation. The stock price has yet to fully recover, even as the market rebounds.
Virginia progressives, who cheered the toppling of four Confederate monuments in Richmond in recent weeks, hope Farrell could be the next storied edifice to fall.
“Clearly there’s a need for new leadership and new direction,” said state Del. Sam Rasoul, a Democratic legislator from Roanoke. “Dominion has consistently operated counter to the interests of Virginians and … when you have a CEO who championed a film that essentially glorifies the Confederacy, with all that is going on, it’s clear that there’s a new mindset needed.”
Dominion declined to comment on the record, but internal messages show the company worried this story aimed to “tar” Farrell as part of a coordinated effort to damage the firm. In an on-background phone call, a spokesman pointed to the company’s recent commitments to donate $25 million to historically Black colleges and universities in Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina and South Carolina and to fund $10 million in scholarships for minority students. The spokesman also highlighted a corporate pledge in June to direct $5 million to “social justice” and “community rebuilding efforts.”
“At Dominion Energy, we have a saying that ‘Actions Speak Louder.’ We share the anger of our communities at the unjustified deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd,” Farrell said in a press release announcing the latter commitment. “Our communities are grieving. Words can evoke empathy, compassion and understanding, but actions truly speak louder. So, we are investing in recovery and reconciliation, and in the vital work of overcoming years of debilitating actions, attitudes and abuses of authority that have traumatized our country.”
The company denied a request to interview Farrell.
A Tale Of Two Compressor Stations
Opposition from environmental justice groups contributed to the demise of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The proposal would have sent the pipeline through Buckingham County, a rural, mountainous area roughly 90 minutes west of Richmond. Dominion also planned to erect a compressor station in Union Hill, a historically Black community in central Virginia that freed slaves founded in the 1800s before the Civil War.
Compressor stations, which use fuel from the pipeline to run a series of gas-compressing engines that keep fuel flowing through the pipeline, emit air pollutants that cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Dominion said the Union Hill permit that the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board had unanimously approved set limits on emissions four to 10 times lower than other recent permits granted in the state. But that still allowed for the release of a cocktail of pollutants, including nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.
For years, Union Hill residents protested and organized groups against the project. The Virginia NAACP condemned Dominion’s plans and urged regulators to halt permitting. In an August 2018 letter, the 15-member state Advisory Council on Environmental Justice urged Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to suspend the permits already granted and conduct a review of potential “civil and human rights violations” and “ensure that predominantly poor, indigenous, brown and/or black communities do not bear an unequal burden of environmental pollutants and life-altering disruptions.”
“We strongly disagree with the Advisory Council’s recommendations,” the company told The Washington Post at the time.
The company then proposed pouring $5.1 million into the Union Hill community, vowing to build a community center and fund an expansion of emergency services. The money proved divisive, which some there said was exactly the point.
“Dominion is an expert at the divide-and-conquer tactic,” Rev. Paul Wilson, the preacher at one of Union Hill’s two historically Black churches and a leading opponent of the pipeline, told NBC News in 2018. “There’s a group of people who are even moving to get me out as pastor. Once you inject money into the conversation, it becomes a wedge.”
When former Vice President Al Gore and anti-poverty activist Rev. William Barber II denounced the compressor station as environmental racism in 2019, Dominion started running Facebook ads featuring video from a high school essay contest on civil rights that it had sponsored.
Meanwhile, the company plowed ahead with plans to build the compressor station ― until a federal court intervened in early 2020, overturning the permit because Dominion had failed to resolve questions about how emissions would affect Union Hill.
It had taken Union Hill activists five years to get redress from the courts.
But a similar fight in a largely white and affluent community played out much differently. Three hours north, in Charles County, Maryland, Dominion spent two years planning another compressor station for the Eastern Market Access project. Then the Mount Vernon Ladies Association intervened, noting that the project would sully the view from President George Washington’s plantation across the Potomac River in Virginia. Four months after the society group joined local environmentalists in opposing the compressor station, Dominion canceled its plans.
Building Over Black History
It’s difficult to say how Farrell’s personal views have factored into company positions. But critics argue that redevelopment schemes that Farrell supported as a real estate investor, independent of his work at Dominion, have shown a similar disregard for Black history and communities.
In 2017, Farrell led a group of developers pushing a $1.5 billion project to rebuild a 10-block swath of downtown Richmond into a new arena, hotel, offices and luxury apartments. He and his co-investors dubbed the planned development Navy Hill after a Black neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for highways. That clearance demolished landmarks and displaced more than 1,000 families. This time, Farrell lined up the support of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D), who is Black and has recently expedited the removal of Confederate monuments in response to the new protests against racism. Stoney received $10,000 from Dominion during his first year in office and announced in 2018 that he planned to continue accepting donations from the powerful utility.
While the project’s wealthy backers promised some funding, the city planned to largely finance the redevelopment through bond market debt. The proposal swore off tax hikes. But the need to pay off that bond debt threatened to divert funding from city services for decades to come, risking more budget cuts at a moment when municipal deficits were already triggering increased austerity.
Many also feared the project would gentrify a historically Black area of the city and make the neighborhood unaffordable for its longtime residents.
A November 2019 editorial in the Richmond Free Press, a weekly newspaper serving the city’s Black community, savaged the project. The editorial board called the plan “a travesty” that risked “leaving the taxpayers … stuck with the bill for the rising costs of city services.” Any new municipal revenue from the project would end up going toward paying off the new arena, the newspaper concluded.
“With this latest scheme, our community once again winds up as losers,” the editorial stated. “Only Mr. Farrell and friends are benefiting from this project and the charade being perpetrated to pull it off.”
There was a lot of race-baiting from folks who want to maintain a certain kind of racial capitalism in the former capital of the Confederacy. Chelsea Wise, organizer and host of the Richmond radio show “Race Capitol”
Chelsea Wise, an organizer and host of the Richmond politics radio show “Race Capitol,” said she saw members of her family holding up picket signs supporting the project at a key city council hearing. When she confronted them, they said they’d been offered $25 to show support.
“I like to joke that, after that, Thanksgiving was very different,” Wise said.
But the project was no laughing matter, she said. Wise took to calling the Navy Hill proposal “the second wave of the Bartholomew project,” a reference to the displacement of Black families during the 1960s under city planner Harland Bartholomew.
Among Navy Hill supporters, “there was a lot of race-baiting from folks who want to maintain a certain kind of racial capitalism in the former capital of the Confederacy,” Wise said. “This project would hurt Black people.”
The Richmond Free Press suggested the paltry rate at which Farrell’s group compensated picketers was an insult unto itself. “Sadly, it shows how deep poverty and depression is within Richmond’s African-American community that $25 can get people to show up and hold signs at a City Council meeting,” the editorial read.
In February, the Richmond City Council voted for a resolution that effectively killed the project.
“While the council resolution didn’t name him, the development proposal process did not reflect civic needs so much as the interests of one man in particular: Navy Hill’s leader and Dominion Energy’s chief executive, Tom Farrell, who has been arguing for a new Richmond arena for almost a decade,” Richard Meagher, an associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College, wrote in a February op-ed in Style Weekly, Richmond’s alt-weekly newspaper.
The Rates Card
Electricity rates are another area where the public interest in Virginia has been increasingly at odds with Farrell’s. In 2007, a hastily passed law proposed and backed by lawmakers who received donations from Dominion restricted the State Corporation Commission’s ability to police the utility rates the company charges. Between 2009 and 2018, the company overcharged Virginians by an average of $234 million per year, according to analysis by the advocacy group Clean Virginia. In 2018 alone, state regulators found that the company overcharged ratepayers by nearly $300 million, which averaged out to an extra $113 per customer for the year.
Dominion also asked to raise the percentage of its revenues it could keep as profit ― a request that regulators rejected last November. Now the company wants to raise rates by as much as $50 a month to help cover the cost of complying with Virginia’s new renewable energy targets.
That would come on top of the financial tsunami ratepayers already face in the months ahead as unemployment in Virginia sits at roughly 10% and workers struggle to make rent amid the coronavirus pandemic. Virginia extended its moratorium on utility service shutoffs for nonpayment until the end of August. Dominion said it will maintain the policy until Oct. 15.
By then, when colder weather risks inflaming the coronavirus infection rate, thousands could lose access to electricity in the state with the seventh-highest average monthly residential electric bill in the country. (Not to mention the other states where Dominion operates. The company said it will apply the same Oct. 15 endpoint to all eight states it serves.)
The risk of losing electricity, advocates say, will fall disproportionately on communities of color. Median-income families in Richmond and Virginia Beach, for example, spent between 3% and 4% of household income on utilities, according to 2013 data from the progressive nonprofit New Virginia Majority. But Black households in the same two cities spent 8% and 10%, respectively. Latino households spent about 6%.
“If you look at what’s actually affordable, paying the current bill plus catching up on arrearage that may have been accumulated during COVID, that may be hard to accommodate,” said Dana Wiggins, director of the Center for Community Outreach and Affordable Clean Energy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “When you take into account that they have been overcharged over a long period of time, it makes it very difficult.”
Dominion, meanwhile, increased its dividend to shareholders in February and then paid them an equivalent sum in June.
Had the nearly $3 billion Dominion spent on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline gone instead toward solar and wind projects, it would have likely lowered the cost of Virginia’s effort to transition to 100% clean energy by 2045.
But Farrell has long maintained that fossil fuels are the past and the future. Until early July, Dominion owned an entire gas transmission and storage subsidiary separate from its utility business. “We’ve come a long way in a relatively short time with renewable energy, but we’re still in the age of fossil fuels, whether we like it or not,” Farrell said in a 2015 speech to regional business leaders. “Seventy-five to eighty percent of it is going to come from fossil fuels, as I said, for many decades to come.”
The election of President Donald Trump, a fossil fuel hardliner, only cemented those views. “We need to acknowledge we are an energy superpower and start acting like it,” Farrell said in a July 2017 lecture to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute. “Instead of trying to keep it all in the ground.”
Thanks to that mindset, Virginia still produces about 63% of its electricity from fossil fuels, compared to 7% from renewables, according to federal figures. The new state rules require that 26% of electricity come from renewables by 2025. In a lone on-the-record statement to HuffPost, a Dominion spokesman said: “We intend to comply with that.”
But climate change’s mounting toll of more disastrous storms, heat waves and flooding show that just meeting that minimum standard is insufficient and “Dominion needs new leadership,” said Harrison Wallace, a community organizer and the Virginia director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a regional grassroots environmental group.
“The leadership of our utility monopoly should at least represent the changing tide in politics and how climate is affecting our planet,” he said.
Farrell’s Lost Cause Film
Farrell’s movie may offer the most damning indication that the executive is out of step with the current moment. The $6 million film ― which received $1 million in public funding via a state filmmaking tax credit ― was widely panned for its historical revisionism.
The script for “Field of Lost Shoes,” which Farrell co-wrote, depicts its Confederate heroes at the Virginia Military Institute as deeply conflicted over slavery.
Historian Jeffrey Evan Brooks complained in a review that a “black character named Old Judge, who runs the VMI bakery, is inserted into the story in order to give the cadets a slave with whom to sympathize when he runs into trouble.” In The Hollywood Reporter, critic Frank Scheck said that the movie “doesn’t exactly score points for objectivity.”
“Amazingly, none of the staunch Southerners seem to hold any negative feelings toward blacks,” Scheck wrote.
At one point, a main character suggests as a given that the newly independent Confederacy must abolish slavery after winning the war. Another insists: “This war is not about slavery. It’s about money. It always is.”
For a white person in the Civil War era to express skepticism about slavery, much less outright support for abolition, would “have been an untenable position in Virginia,” said historian Rev. Benjamin Campbell, author of “Richmond’s Unhealed History,” a book about the city’s failure to confront the oppressive racist policies that shaped its past.
“A white person would have been thrown out of the state,” Campbell said. “A newspaper editor who simply questioned slavery was challenged to a duel in 1848 and killed in Virginia.”
Politically acceptable opinions at the time, he said, ranged from full-throated support of slavery to “advocating the American Colonization Society,” which was an effort to deport freed Black people to Africa and establish a U.S. trading colony there.
Campbell said he knows Farrell, who is in his mid-60s, personally and the Dominion boss is “not a rigid racist.”
“He’s a Virginian of his generation, and he’s a person in moral and emotional transition like all the rest of us,” Campbell said. “But it may not be fast enough.”
An internal text message HuffPost obtained showed what appeared to be public relations employees worrying about a “total of three negative pieces brewing” that will “try to tar us,” including this story, an op-ed due out in a local newspaper criticizing a lawmaker for accepting Dominion contributions, and an investigation in another outlet examining the company’s political donations. The texting thread of five Richmond-area numbers, which appears to have accidentally included this reporter, suggested the publications were “brewing all in rough coordination,” though HuffPost had no prior knowledge of the other two pieces.
Farrell’s role should “certainly be questioned” in the wake of the pipeline project, said Barber, a towering figure of the current civil rights movement.
“A company that would attempt to do all this to communities and put its customers through this kind of fight should be challenged in so many ways,” he said. “Racism is not just about symbolism, it’s about substance.”
CORRECTION: Union Hill lies in central Virginia, not Northern Virginia.
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