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Dominion running all-out media, lobbying push to win over South Carolina

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Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell speaks during a news conference last week in Cayce with SCANA CEO Jimmy Addison. Since announcing a proposed takeover of SCANA, Virginia-based Dominion has undertaken an all-out push to win over regulators, lawmakers and the public. Andy Shain/Staff

COLUMBIA — Less than a week after announcing a proposed takeover of SCANA, Dominion Energy is in an all-out push to win over lawmakers, regulators and, most of all, South Carolina electric customers, who could help sway public opinion.

SCANA and Dominion top executives are set to brief the South Carolina Public Service Commission about the proposed acquisition Thursday. But Virginia-based Dominion isn't simply waiting to see what the state's seven utility regulators and SCANA's 700,000 power customers think of the deal. 

The $49 billion utility giant, which operates in 17 states, is hard at work trying to overcome the public distrust created by the $9 billion cancellation of two nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer station in Fairfield County by SCANA subsidiary, S.C. Electric & Gas.

The company laid out a plan that would cut what customers are paying for the abandoned nuclear reactors from roughly $27 per month to around $20 — a cost that would last for the next 20 years. And it promoted a $1,000 refund for the average SCE&G customer, which, as it turned out, is money people were entitled to anyway.  

Last week, Dominion's CEO Thomas Farrell visited SCANA's Cayce headquarters to announce the $14.6 billion acquisition

Then Dominion started running ads touting the refund and rate rollback in promoted Facebook and Twitter posts. It took out full-page ads in newspapers The State of Columbia and The Post and Courier in Charleston. Its executives were interviewed on morning news segments at local television stations. And the company announced more than $1 million in charitable donations to groups throughout South Carolina.

The powerful utility company doled out $13,500 in campaign contributions to South Carolina lawmakers and legislative caucuses in the last three months of 2017, according to records.

And it recently increased its number of lobbyists in the Statehouse from five to nine, including former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges. 

Hodges, who has worked with Dominion in the past as a partner in Virginia-based law firm Maguire Woods, said he's not spoken with South Carolina legislative leaders, the governor or state regulators about the SCANA sale and has no immediate plans to do so. Still, he said he filed as a lobbyist to be safe.

"I'm just a boring lawyer," Hodges quipped, "though I do have some experience doing business in the state. I'm here if I can be helpful."

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Members of the state House and Senate recognized the outsized pressure that is being placed on them earlier this week. As several senators called for lawmakers to take their time on proposed utility laws, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey told his colleagues they should prepare themselves. 

"It's probably going to be one of the most intense lobbying efforts you've ever seen," Massey said. "It's coming."

Farrell will testify before a House panel next week to help explain the sale to lawmakers who developed legislation meant to reimburse SCE&G customers for money paid for the abandoned reactors and stop future payments.

Dominion spokesman Chet Wade said Dominion hadn't yet set a budget for its lobbying and public relations push in South Carolina. The company is also conducting polls to craft its message and figure out what ratepayers want to know. A key question so far, he says, is when customers will receive their refund checks.

"It is clear from the overwhelming response that SCE&G customers and others want as much information as they can get about what the proposed merger means to them," Wade said in an email. "We are committed to reaching out every way we can."

Lawmakers are considering a raft of utility changes this session, including a bill that would halt the roughly $37 million a month SCANA continues to charge its customers for the unfinished reactors. That bill would repeal the Base Load Review Act, the 2007 law that SCANA used to charge customers for the reactors before they were complete. 

Dominion has effectively told lawmakers that if they follow through on their promises to repeal the utility-friendly law, the Virginia-based company is likely to back out of its deal to takeover SCANA. 

Gov. Henry McMaster, who would be responsible for signing any law to repeal the Base Load Review Act, said Wednesday the lobbying effort by Dominion won't affect his decision-making on the issue. 

"It’s not a question in my view, as far as my office is concerned, of lobbying," McMaster said. "It’s a question of discussing, getting facts, getting good analyses, understanding what we’re doing and deciding what the best direction to go is for the people of this state." 

Andy Shain and Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this story.

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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