The Energy and Policy Institute recently learned, thanks to Seth Heald at the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, that vice president and deputy general counsel for Dominion, David Shuford, has in his spare time penned some misleading letters to the editor skeptical of the science on the causes and risks of climate change, and questioning the need to limit heat-trapping emissions.

Dominion’s ties to climate deniers warrant greater scrutiny

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Benjamin Baughan, senior market originator for Dominion Generation, serves on the board directors of the American Coal Council. A communications kit found on the group’s website disputes the science on the climate risks of burning coal for energy, and proclaims that “CO2 is plant food.”

A report published earlier this year noted that while a number of fossil fuel and utility companies have severed ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council over the group’s controversial views on climate science and policies, Dominion remains a member. The report also briefly mentioned that James Beamer, a chief lobbyist for Dominion, serves on the board of directors of the Thomas Jefferson Institute. This relationship between a lobbyist for one of the nation’s largest utilities and an aggressive purveyor of attacks on climate science and policies warrants much deeper scrutiny than it has so far received.

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote that "... the more ignorant we become the less value we set on science, and the less inclination we shall have to seek it."

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote that “… the more ignorant we become the less value we set on science, and the less inclination we shall have to seek it.”

Using Thomas Jefferson’s name to spread climate denial

“The Virginia political figure we most admire was the preeminent scientist of the day, Thomas Jefferson,” Senator Tim Kaine said recently during a floor speech in which he scrutinized the undue influence of fossil fuel funded climate deniers in Virginia. “Virginians overwhelmingly believe in science.”

The Thomas Jefferson Institute, which is based in Virginia, does not seem to share in this belief. The group has long promoted the views of climate science deniers, including in a special that it aired last year on Richmond’s PBS affiliate. Chief among those deniers is David Schnare, who in an odd twist serves as the pro bono director of the group’s Center for Environmental Stewardship.

Schnare is probably best known in Virginia for his role in using Freedom of Information Act requests to harass former University of Virginia climate scientist, Michael Mann. While Schnare primarily represented the American Tradition Institute (now the Energy and Environment Legal Institute) in the legal dispute that ensued, he also referenced his affiliation with the Thomas Jefferson Institute in an affidavit and at least one exhibit filed in the case.

Ultimately, the Virginia Supreme Court ordered one of Schnare’s groups, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal), to pay damages to Mann and the University of Virginia, but that has not dissuaded Schnare and his cronies from targeting climate scientists with similar attacks elsewhere.

“Below the radar screen, there are many other climate scientists that are being harassed by these very same groups,” as Mann told the Washington Post. “The court recognized that threat.”

Indeed, the Dominion-backed American Coal Council has also singled out Mann’s research, and repeated debunked denier myths that Mann himself addressed years ago.

Bankruptcy filings have recently revealed that The Thomas Jefferson Institute has received funding from Alpha Natural Resources, a coal producer headquartered in Virginia. So did another Schnare group, the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic. E&E Legal has also received funding from other coal companies that went bankrupt, including Arch Coal and Peabody Energy. While Schnare has described his work for these groups as “pro bono,” he has also maintained a private practice, Schnare and Associates, that does not disclose its paying clients.

Dominion needs to explain its ties to the Thomas Jefferson Institute

What do we know so far about the relationship between Dominion’s chief lobbyist, the Thomas Jefferson Institute, and David Schnare? Archival copies of Thomas Jefferson Institute’s website suggest James Beamer had joined the group’s board of directors by 2011. At the time, the Thomas Jefferson Institute provided Schnare a platform to promote his campaign of harassment against Michael Mann. The group has advertised Beamer’s affiliation with Dominion on its website and in various publications ever since.

A screenshot of an archived webpage shows that Dominion Resources name has appeared on the Thomas Jefferson Institute's website since 2011.

A screenshot of an archived webpage shows that Dominion Resources’ name has appeared on the Thomas Jefferson Institute’s website since 2011.

Beamer’s colleague, David Shuford, did not disclose his affiliation with Dominion in his controversial letters to the editor, which he has said communicated his own personal views on climate change, not those of the company. Beamer’s affiliation with Dominion, on the other hand, is advertised by the Thomas Jefferson Institute. Both examples raise questions about how pervasive the culture of denial remains at Dominion and its subsidiaries, where responsibility for climate policy lies directly in the hands of company leadership. According to Dominion’s latest 10-K:

The Companies support national climate change legislation that would provide a consistent, economy-wide approach to addressing this issue and are currently taking action to protect the environment and address climate change while meeting the growing needs of their service territory. The Companies are actively developing plans to comply with new Clean Power Plan and NSPS regulations for new and existing electric generating sources and its natural gas business. Dominion’s CEO and operating segment CEOs are responsible for compliance with the laws and regulations governing environmental matters, including climate change, and Dominion’s Board of Directors receives periodic updates on these matters.

The onus is now on Dominion to explain, and ideally sever, any ties the company has to the Thomas Jefferson Institute, a group that has long communicated harmful views on climate change – views that do not seem to align with Dominion’s official positions on this urgent issue.

One has to wonder what Thomas Jefferson would have made of all this. The “Father of the University of Virginia” and fan of enlightenment might have frowned upon seeing his name usurped to perpetuate attacks on climate science.

“Thomas Jefferson thought it all came back to public enlightenment,” as Thomas Farrell, the CEO of Dominion, once said. “Democracy fails without it. Smart guy, Jefferson.”

We reached out to James Beamer and Dominion for comment but had received no reply by publication time. We will update this post with any response that they provide.

Posted by Dave Anderson

Dave Anderson is the policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute. Dave has been working at the nexus of clean energy and public policy since 2008. Prior to joining the Energy and Policy Institute, he was an outreach coordinator for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He is also an alumnus of the Sierra Club and the Alliance for Climate Protection (now the Climate Reality Project). Dave’s research has helped to spur public scrutiny of political attacks on clean energy and climate science by powerful special interests, such as ExxonMobil and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). His work has been cited by major media outlets, such as CBS News and the Wall Street Journal, and he has served as a speaker on panels at national solar industry conferences. Dave holds a MA in Political Science from the University of New Hampshire, where he also received a BA in Humanities.