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, R-Virginia 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.