A. Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, each public utility authorized to furnish natural gas service in Virginia (gas utility) is authorized to offer to all of the gas utility’s customers not eligible for transportation service under tariffs in effect on the effective date of this section, direct access to gas suppliers (retail supply choice) by filing a plan for implementing retail supply choice with the State Corporation Commission for approval. The provisions of this section shall not apply to any retail supply choice pilot program in effect on July 1, 1999. The Commission shall accept such a plan for filing within thirty days of filing if it contains, at a minimum:
1. A schedule for implementing retail supply choice for all of its customers;
2. Tariff revisions, including proposed unbundled rates for firm and interruptible service (which may utilize a cost allocation and rate design formulated to recover the gas utility’s nongas fixed costs on a nonvolumetric basis) and terms and conditions of service designed to provide nondiscriminatory open access over its transportation system, comparable to the transportation service provided by the gas utility to itself, to allow competitive suppliers to sell natural gas directly to the gas utility’s customers. Any proposed unbundling rates shall include an explanation of the methodology used to develop the rates and a calculation of revenues, by customer class, thereby produced;
3. Nonbypassable, competitively neutral annual surcharges for the gas utility to properly allocate and recover from its firm service customers not eligible for nonpilot transportation service under tariffs in effect on the effective date of this section, its nonmitigable costs associated with the provision of retail supply choice, including prudently incurred contract obligation costs and transition costs. For the purposes of this section, contract obligation costs are costs associated with acquiring, maintaining or terminating interstate and intrastate pipeline and storage capacity contracts, less revenues generated by mitigating such contract obligations, whether by off-system sales, capacity release, pipeline supplier refunds or otherwise; and transition costs are costs incurred by the gas utility associated with educating the public on retail supply choice and redesigning its facilities, operations and systems to permit retail supply choice;
4. Tariff provisions to balance the receipts and deliveries of gas supplies to retail supply choice customers and allocate the gas utility’s gas costs so that one class of customers is not subsidized by another class of customers;
5. Tariff provisions requiring the gas utility, at a minimum, to offer gas suppliers or retail supply choice customers the right to acquire the gas utility’s upstream transmission and/or storage capacity in a manner that assures that one class of customers is not subsidized by another class of customers, provided that nothing contained herein shall deny the gas utility the right to request Commission approval of such tariff provisions as are designed to ensure the safe and reliable delivery of natural gas to firm service customers on its system, including provisions requiring gas suppliers to accept assignment of upstream transportation and storage capacity, and/or allowing the gas utility to retain a portion of its upstream transportation and storage capacity to ensure safe and reliable natural gas service to its customers;
6. A code of conduct governing the activities and relationships between the gas utility and gas suppliers to prevent anticompetitive or discriminatory conduct and the unlawful exercise of market power. Such codes of conduct shall incorporate or be consistent with any rule or guideline established by the Commission; and
7. Any other requirement established by Commission rule or regulation.The Commission may, by rule or regulation, impose such additional filing requirements as it deems necessary in the public interest. The Commission may also require a gas utility to continue to serve as a gas supplier to its customers after the gas utility’s plan becomes effective and under such terms and conditions as are necessary to protect the public interest.
B. After the Commission has accepted a filing as provided in subsection A, the Commission shall review and approve a plan filed by a gas utility unless it determines, after notice and an opportunity for public hearing, that the plan would:
1. Adversely affect the quality, safety, or reliability of natural gas service by the gas utility or the provision of adequate service to the gas utility’s customers;
2. Result in rates charged by the gas utility that are not just and reasonable rates within the contemplation of § 56-235.2 or that are in excess of levels approved by the Commission under § 56-235.6, as the case may be;
3. Adversely affect the gas utility’s customers not participating in the retail supply choice plan;
4. Unreasonably discriminate against one class of the gas utility’s customers in favor of another class (provided, however, that a gas utility’s recovery of nongas fixed costs on a nonvolumetric basis shall not necessarily constitute unreasonable discrimination); or
5. Not be in the public interest.The Commission shall, after the acceptance of a filing of a retail supply choice plan, approve or disapprove the plan within 120 days. The 120-day period may be extended by Commission order for an additional period not to exceed sixty days. The retail supply choice plan shall be deemed approved if the Commission fails to act within 120 days or any extended period ordered by the Commission. The Commission shall approve a retail supply choice plan filed by a gas utility pursuant to this subsection regardless of whether it has promulgated rules and regulations pursuant to subsection A. The Commission may also modify a plan filed by a gas utility to ensure that it conforms to the provisions of this subsection and is otherwise in the public interest. Plans approved pursuant to this section shall not be placed into effect before July 1, 2000.
C. The Commission may, on its own motion, direct a gas utility to file a retail supply choice plan, which shall comply with subsection A, shall include such other details in the plan as the Commission may require, and does not cause the effects set forth in subsection B, or the Commission may, on its own motion, propose a plan for a gas utility for retail supply choice that complies with the requirements of subsection A and does not cause the effects set forth in subsection B. The Commission may approve any plans under this subsection after notice to all affected parties and an opportunity for hearing.
D. Once a plan becomes effective pursuant to this section, if the Commission determines, after notice and opportunity for hearing, that the plan is causing, or is reasonably likely to cause, the effects set forth in subsection B, it may order revisions to the plan to remove such effects. Any such revisions to the plan will operate prospectively only.
E. If, upon application of at least twenty-five percent of retail supply choice customers or of 500 retail choice customers, whichever number is lesser, or by the gas utility, it is alleged that the marketplace for retail supply choice customer is not reasonably competitive or results in rates unreasonably in excess of what would otherwise be charged by the gas utility, or if the Commission renders such a determination upon its own motion, then the Commission may, after notice, and opportunity for hearing, terminate the gas utility’s retail supply choice program and provide for an orderly return of the retail choice customers to the gas utility’s traditional retail natural gas sales service. In such event, the gas utility shall be given the opportunity to acquire, under reasonable and competitive terms and conditions and within a reasonable time period, such upstream transportation and storage capacity as is necessary for it to provide traditional retail natural gas sales service to former retail supply choice customers.
1. No person, other than a gas utility, shall engage in the business of selling natural gas to the residential and small commercial customers of a gas utility that has an approved plan implementing retail supply choice unless such person (for the purpose of this section, gas supplier) holds a license issued by the Commission. An application for a gas supplier license must be made to the Commission in writing, be verified by oath or affirmation and be in such form and contain such information as the Commission may, by rule or regulation, require. For purposes of this subsection, the Commission shall require a gas supplier to demonstrate that it has the means to provide natural gas to essential human needs customers. A gas supplier license shall be issued to any qualified applicant within forty-five days of the date of filing such application, authorizing in whole or in part the service covered by the application, unless the Commission determines otherwise for good cause shown. A person holding such a license shall not be considered a “public service corporation,” “public service company” or a “public utility” and shall not be subject to regulation as such; however, nothing contained herein shall be construed to affect the liability of such a person for any license tax levied pursuant to Article 2 (§ 58.1-2620 et seq.) of Chapter 26 of Title 58.1. No license issued under this chapter shall be transferred without prior Commission approval finding that such transfer is not inconsistent with the public interest. If the Commission determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearing, that a gas supplier has failed to comply with the provisions of this subsection or the Commission’s rules, regulations or orders, the Commission may enjoin, fine, or punish any such failure pursuant to the Commission’s authority under this statute and under Title 12.1 of the Code of Virginia. The Commission may also suspend or revoke the gas supplier’s license or take such other action as is necessary to protect the public interest.
2. The Commission shall establish rules and regulations for the implementation of this subsection, provided that:
a. The Commission’s rules and regulations shall not govern the rates charged by licensed gas suppliers, except that the Commission’s rules and regulations may govern the terms and conditions of service of licensed gas suppliers to protect the gas utility’s customers from commercially unreasonable terms and conditions; and
b. The Commission’s rules and regulations shall permit an affiliate of the gas utility to be licensed as a gas supplier and to participate in the gas utility’s retail supply choice program under the same terms and conditions as gas suppliers not affiliated with the gas utility.
3. The Commission shall also have the authority to issue rules and regulations governing the marketing practices of gas suppliers.
G. Retail customers’ private right of action; marketing practices.
1. No gas supplier shall use any deception, fraud, false pretense, misrepresentation, or any deceptive or unfair practices in providing or marketing gas service.
2. Any person who suffers loss (i) as the result of fraudulent marketing practices, including telemarketing practices, engaged in by any gas supplier providing any service made competitive under this section, or of any violation of rules and regulations issued by the Commission pursuant to subdivision F 3, or (ii) as the result of any violation of subdivision 1 of this subsection, shall be entitled to initiate an action to recover actual damages, or $ 500, whichever is greater. If the trier of fact finds that the violation was willful, it may increase damages to an amount not exceeding three times the actual damages sustained, or $ 1,000, whichever is greater. Notwithstanding any other provisions of law to the contrary, in addition to any damages awarded, such person also may be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees and court costs.
3. The Attorney General, the attorney for the Commonwealth or the attorney for the city, county or town may cause an action to be brought in the appropriate circuit court for relief of violations referenced in subdivision 2 of this subsection.
4. Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, in addition to any damages awarded, such person or governmental agency initiating an action pursuant to this section may be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees and court costs.
5. Any action pursuant to this subsection shall be commenced by persons other than the Commission within two years after its accrual. The cause of action shall accrue as provided in § 8.01-230. However, if the Commission initiates proceedings, or any other governmental agency files suit for violations under this section, the time during which such proceeding or governmental suit and all appeals therefrom are pending shall not be counted as any part of the period within which an action under this section shall be brought.
6. The circuit court may make such additional orders or decrees as may be necessary to restore to any identifiable person any money or property, real, personal, or mixed, tangible or intangible, which may have been acquired from such person by means of any act or practice violative of this subsection, provided that such person shall be identified by order of the court within 180 days from the date of any order permanently enjoining the unlawful act or practice.
7. In any case arising under this subsection, no liability shall be imposed upon any gas supplier who shows by a preponderance of the evidence that (i) the act or practice alleged to be in violation of subdivision 1 of this subsection was an act or practice over which the same had no control or (ii) the alleged violation resulted from a bona fide error notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures reasonably adopted to avoid a violation. However, nothing in this section shall prevent the court from ordering restitution and payment of reasonable attorney’s fees and court costs pursuant to subdivision 4 of this subsection to individuals aggrieved as a result of an unintentional violation of this subsection.
H. Authorized public utilities shall file with the Commission tariff revisions reflecting the net effect of the elimination of taxes pursuant to subsection B of § 58.1-2904 and the addition of state income taxes pursuant to § 58.1-400. Such tariffs shall be effective for service rendered on and after January 1, 2001, and shall be filed at least forty-five days prior to the effective date. Such filing shall not constitute a rate increase for the purposes of § 56-235.4.
1. The Commission shall develop a consumer education program designed to provide the following information to retail customers concerning retail supply choice for natural gas customers:
a. Opportunities and options in choosing natural gas suppliers;
b. Marketing and billing information gas suppliers will be required to furnish retail customers;
c. Retail customers’ rights and obligations concerning the purchase of natural gas and related services; and
d. Such other information as the Commission may deem necessary and appropriate and in the public interest.
2. The consumer education program authorized herein may be conducted in conjunction with the program provided for in § 56-592.
3. The Commission shall establish or maintain a complaint bureau for the purpose of receiving, reviewing and investigating complaints by retail customers against gas utilities, public service companies, licensed suppliers and other providers of any services affected by this section. Upon the request of any interested person or the Attorney General, or upon its own motion, the Commission shall be authorized to inquire into possible violations of § 56-235.8 and to enjoin or punish any violations thereof pursuant to its authority under § 56-235.8, this title, or Title 12.1. The Attorney General shall have a right to participate in such proceedings consistent with the Commission’s Rules of Practice and Procedure.
4. For all billing statements sent on and after August 1, 2000, all gas utilities, as defined in subsection A, shall enclose the following information in all billing statements for retail natural gas service:
a. Gas utilities shall separately state an approximate amount of the tax imposed under §§ 58.1-2626, 58.1-2660 and 58.1-3731 which is included in the customer’s bill until such tax is no longer imposed; and
b. For all such billing statements, a statement which reads as follows shall be included: “Beginning January 1, 2001, the current state and local gross receipts taxes on sales of natural gas will be replaced by a tax based on the consumption of natural gas by consumers. In the past, the current gross receipts tax has always been included in the rate charged for natural gas. Now, this tax is being separately stated. The total gross receipts tax imposed by Virginia and the localities is approximately two percent of the amount charged to consumers. The new state and local consumption tax will be charged at an approximate rate of $ 0.02 per 100 cubic feet (CCF) of natural gas consumed. While this rate was designed to be less than, or equal to, the effect of the current gross receipts tax which is being replaced, the tax you pay may actually be higher in your locality. This statement is being provided for your information.”
1999, c. 494; 2000, cc. 691, 706.