Con­ser­va­tion group op­poses nom­i­na­tion for SCC po­si­tion

Rich­mond lawyer’s work in­volves firms reg­u­lated by panel

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - LOCAL PERSPECTIVES - BY MICHAEL MARTZ mmartz@times­dis­patch.com (804) 649-6964

A state con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion op­poses the nom­i­na­tion of Rich­mond lawyer David W. Clarke to serve on the State Cor­po­ra­tion Com­mis­sion be­cause of his work for reg­u­lated oil, gas and in­sur­ance com­pa­nies.

The Vir­ginia League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers is­sued a state­ment Wed­nes­day that claimed the re­sults of a poll it con­ducted last month show the public doesn’t want some­one on the SCC who has rep­re­sented in­dus­tries that it reg­u­lates.

“One thing is now clear: cit­i­zens don’t want a fox guard­ing the hen house,” said Michael Town, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the league. “They want in­de­pen­dent lead­er­ship on the panel re­spon­si­ble for ei­ther set­ting Vir­ginia on the path to a cleaner en­ergy fu­ture, or main­tain­ing our state’s re­liance on dirty fos­sil fu­els.”

Clarke, 62, is a lawyer and mem­ber in charge at the Rich­mond office of Eck­ert Sea­mans, which rep­re­sents the Vir­ginia Oil & Gas As­so­ci­a­tion and Columbia Gas of Vir­ginia, as well as in­sur­ance and bank­ing in­ter­ests sub­ject to SCC reg­u­la­tion.

He tes­ti­fied for the as­so­ci­a­tion last Au­gust in fa­vor of the pro­posed At­lantic Coast and Moun­tain Val­ley nat­u­ral gas pipe­lines that en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions strongly op­pose.

Clarke al­ready was the ap­par­ent choice of the ma­jor­ity Repub­li­can cau­cus in the House of Del­e­gates to suc­ceed Judge James C. Dim­itri, who re­tired at the end of Fe­bru­ary with two years left on his term.

But Clarke’s prospects were boosted this week when for­mer Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, the top choice of Se­nate Repub­li­cans, with­drew his name and en­dorsed Clarke to fill the un­ex­pired term.

Sen. Frank Wag­ner, RVir­ginia Beach, chair­man of the Se­nate Com­merce and La­bor Com­mit­tee, had coaxed Watkins to come out of re­tire­ment to fill the SCC seat, after the panel in­ter­viewed Clarke and two other can­di­dates for the job.

“I’m dis­ap­pointed, ob­vi­ously,” Wag­ner said of Watkins’ de­ci­sion to with­draw his can­di­dacy. “Hav­ing been his seat­mate and served with him in the Se­nate, I re­al­ized what a great in­tel­lect he is.”

Clarke “was al­ways my sec­ond choice if we couldn’t get John,” the chair­man said. “Hope­fully, we can get these things done in the next few days.”

Wag­ner said Clarke’s ex­pe­ri­ence with en­ergy and in­sur­ance in­ter­ests would be an as­set to the SCC and bal­ance the com­mis­sion’s tra­di­tional fo­cus on pro­tect­ing con­sumers against mo­nop­oly power, es­pe­cially with util­ity rates.

He also said Clarke would help move the SCC to­ward goals the Gen­eral As­sem­bly set out for en­cour­ag­ing re­new­able en­ergy and en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, as well as mod­ern­iza­tion of the elec­tric grid through a law pushed by Do­min­ion En­ergy and adopted by the Gen­eral As­sem­bly this year.

“I have every con­fi­dence that David would have a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on that, which quite frankly is in align­ment with that of the League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers,” Wag­ner said.

In an interview Wed­nes­day, Town agreed that the SCC needs a stronger em­pha­sis on clean en­ergy and en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, but he said, “At the same time, it’s also im­por­tant that the public has trust in the de­ci­sions com­ing out of the com­mis­sion.”

He ac­knowl­edged Clarke’s ex­pe­ri­ence and qual­i­fi­ca­tions but said, “His back­ground is not some­thing I be­lieve is go­ing to build trust with the gen­eral public.”

The league said it con­ducted a Google poll of 1,000 reg­is­tered vot­ers in Vir­ginia and asked whether they would sup­port some­one who rep­re­sents health in­sur­ance or oil and gas com­pa­nies on the com­mis­sion that reg­u­lates them. It said the ma­jor­ity would not sup­port some­one with that back­ground for the panel.

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups pro­posed five can­di­dates for the job in a let­ter in mid-March to Gov. Ralph Northam, who could make an in­terim ap­point­ment to the com­mis­sion if the Gen­eral As­sem­bly doesn’t act dur­ing the spe­cial ses­sion that be­gan April 11.

“Your gu­ber­na­to­rial choice here is cru­cial: this is a wa­ter­shed moment for Vir­ginia’s econ­omy,” states the let­ter sent to Northam on March 14 by the league, the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, Ch­e­sa­peake Cli­mate Ac­tion Net­work and Ap­palachian Voices.

A list of pre­ferred can­di­dates for the en­vi­ron­men­tal groups in­cludes: Cliona Robb, a lawyer who leads the en­ergy and sus­tain­abil­ity prac­tice at the Chris­tian & Bar­ton law firm in Rich­mond; Deputy Sec­re­tary of Com­merce & Trade An­gela Navarro; Wil­liam Reisinger, an en­ergy at­tor­ney at the GreeneHur­locker law firm in Rich­mond; Da­wone Robin­son, re­gional co-direc­tor at NRDC; and for­mer Sec­re­tary of Nat­u­ral Re­sources Pre­ston Bryant, a lawyer and lob­by­ist at McGuireWoods Con­sult­ing.

Sep­a­rately, the Vir­ginia Chap­ter of the Sierra Club urged Northam on March 13 to ap­point Robb to the post.

Clarke

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