At Dominion Shareholder Meeting, Pipeline Opponents Address CEO Directly In What’s Become An Annual Airing Of Grievances
Above Photo: Terry. Bob Brown/ Times-Dispatch
Opponents of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline have organized dozens of meetings, protests and marches in an effort to stop the project since it was announced in 2014.
But there’s just one time a year they’re guaranteed an audience with the pipeline’s lead developer, Dominion Energy, as well as its CEO, Thomas F. Farrell II: the company’s annual shareholder meeting, where anyone who owns stock in the company or is representing someone who does is entitled to take to the microphone and unload for a few minutes.
And this year, Wednesday was the big day.
“Mr. Farrell, do you feel Dominion’s profits are more important than people’s lives and the planet?” asked Deborah Kushner, a resident of Nelson County who lives near the proposed path of the pipeline — one of about 10 pipeline opponents who traveled to Richmond to address Farrell in person.
Farrell, the energy giant’s chairman, president and CEO, responded briefly to each of them.
“Obviously, I don’t,” he told Kushner, adding that the various facts she had laid out, in his view, “just don’t comport with reality.”
The annual meeting took place under heavy security at the Greater Richmond Convention Center in downtown, where a group of about 50 protesters gathered on a corner outside.
Among them was Red Terry, who spent five weeks camped in a tree on her land protesting the Mountain Valley Pipeline, another natural gas pipeline project that would slice through part of the state. They waved signs, prayed, chanted slogans and gave speeches.
Inside, black curtains were set up over the street-facing windows, blocking the protesters from view. To gain entry, attendees were required to enter through the third floor of a parking garage across the street, cross through a sky bridge and proceed back downstairs to the center’s lobby.
There, they presented their tickets and photo identification and went through a metal detector. In the conference room where the meeting took place, private guards lined the walls and were interspersed in the crowd of a few hundred.
There were no disruptions and the actual business portion of the meeting was brisk. Farrell gave a high-level overview of the company’s operations and plans. Investors voted to approve board appointments and executive compensation while voting down a shareholder proposal that would have given them the right to call special meetings midyear, which the company’s leaders opposed.
A second shareholder proposal requiring Dominion to issue a report on the company’s policy and plans to address leaks of methane — a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change — was withdrawn ahead of the meeting after the company agreed to begin releasing annual reports on the subject.
The first and only whiffs of dissent came when Farrell opened the floor for the question-and-answer portion of the meeting.
All but two of the dozen speakers focused on concerns about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would cut through the state on its way from West Virginia to North Carolina, with a spur to Hampton Roads. Utilities in Virginia and North Carolina, mostly affiliates of pipeline partners Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, have contracted for most of the gas.
The company says the pipeline is needed to meet energy demands as coal plants are phased out, particularly in Hampton Roads, where they say the current supply of natural gas is maxed out.
Opponents — some of whom had purchased a single share of stock (which was selling Wednesday for about $63) to gain admission and some of whom came as the designated proxy of a shareholder — pleaded with Farrell to reconsider. They cited environmental impacts and the use of eminent domain to take private property that they said, in some cases, had been passed down by families for generations.
Residents of Buckingham County, where Dominion plans to build the pipeline’s only compressor station in the state, were especially vocal.
“How are you honestly able to promote Dominion as a good neighbor?” Kenda Hanuman said. “Neighbors [of the proposed compressor] are living in dread and fear.”
Farrell responded by pointing back to his presentation about Dominion’s operations, which included accounts of both charitable and mutual aid operations and efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
“I just went through 45 minutes of why we’re a good neighbor,” he said. “There are so many half-truths, it’s difficult to deal with all of them. The pipeline is needed to support our customers and the economy.”
In response to a call for Dominion to shift to renewable energy sources, Farrell offered that “someday in the far future” the company would be able to rely solely on green energy, but until then, natural gas, and pipelines to deliver it, will be an important intermediate step.
Farrell told Irene Leech — a landowner who said Dominion was planning to construct its pipeline directly through the center of her family’s beef farm rather than at least following fence lines to reduce disruption to her business — that she had ignored requests from the company to meet and discuss her concerns.
In response, Leech, who is also president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, accused Farrell of lying.
Dominion spokesman Chet G. Wade said the company’s annual shareholder meetings started becoming more contentious over the past decade as Dominion began pursuing larger infrastructure projects. But he said the trend isn’t unique to Dominion and said the company has opted to continue holding the meetings in person even as other companies have shifted to digital forums.
“Construction tends to cause community concerns and they come to the annual meeting to present those, and we welcome them that opportunity,” he said.