Virginia Republicans, emboldened by a new conservative governor and state House majority, are hungry to dismantle the state’s recent clean energy progress.
But advocates who prodded those green leaps forward doubt the staid but still- Democratic-majority Senate — or the public — has the appetite to deconstruct the Virginia Clean Economy Act, Clean Cars and participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
“We expect attacks on landmark laws that pass in the House will be dead on arrival in the Senate,” said Lee Francis, deputy director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “It’s unfortunate that it’s 2022, the world is on fire and we’re still playing partisan games with climate.”
Thus far, his tally of bills circulating this legislative session includes 20-plus measures designed to weaken or repeal the ambitious advances Virginia has made in curbing climate emissions and hastening its transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles.
Francis and his climate colleagues statewide have been girding for this clash since Nov. 2 when Virginians upset expectations by electing Republican Glenn Youngkin instead of Democrat Terry McAuliffe as the next governor. McAuliffe was governor from 2014 to 2018. Virginia governors are barred from serving consecutive terms.
Voters also flipped the House of Delegates back to a 52-48 GOP majority after Democrats held the leadership reins for two years. In the Senate, Democrats maintain a 21-19 majority. Senate seats weren’t on the ballot last year.
“Senators kept their promise to voters by passing strong climate action,” Francis said. “We’re working with leaders in the Senate to make it clear to Gov. Youngkin that this is the law of the land.
“If he wants to run into a brick wall for the next four years, then he can feel free.”
Businesses and colleges operating in Virginia are equally alarmed by the Republican-led effort to turn back efforts to significantly reduce emissions of pollutants in the power and transportation sectors.
Unilever, Worthen Industries, Nestlé and Mars Inc. are among the seven companies that submitted a letter to lawmakers just after the General Assembly convened on Jan. 12. The session is set to last two months.
Ceres, a Boston-based sustainability nonprofit, coordinated the delivery of the letter, also signed by Sweet Briar College, the University of Lynchburg, Virginia Wesleyan University and the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges.
“Clean energy and vehicle standards are an important tool for businesses to cut energy costs, avoid the volatility of fuel prices, and stay competitive,” the signers wrote. “Our companies are motivated to make investments in places where we can access these types of policies. [They] are essential to building a predictable pathway for decarbonization in Virginia.”
Mel Mackin, manager of state policy for Ceres, said her organization’s focus is on defending the state’s foundational climate policies.
“It’s kind of a wait-and-see situation,” Mackin said about tracking how many bills actually advance out of a committee in either chamber. “Companies in Virginia are telling legislators they don’t want to see this work undone because, through climate mitigation, Virginia can maintain a strong economy and meet sustainability goals.”
RGGI on the ropes?
Youngkin made early waves in the environmental community even before his mid-January inauguration by vowing to extract Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative via executive order. After years of obstruction, Virginia became the first Southern state to join the East Coast carbon cap-and-invest enterprise in 2020 under the guidance of former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
The program, initiated in 2008, is designed to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases from fossil fuel power plants by auctioning carbon dioxide allowances. Eleven member states decide independently how to spend the dollars.
Virginia opted to roughly split its proceeds, which netted $237.6 million in its initial year, between bolstering energy efficiency initiatives for low-income residents and flood resiliency infrastructure and adaptation projects.
Unilateral executive action can’t override RGGI, legal experts have stated, because Virginia’s participation is mandated by both statute — legislation in the form of House Bill 981 — and regulation — through the State Air Pollution Control Board.
The new governor, a political novice and a former co-CEO of the private equity giant the Carlyle Group, has also directed the Air Pollution Control Board to start the process of exiting RGGI. But Francis calls that another dead end.
“Youngkin came in raring at the bit,” Francis said. “What he is trying to do on RGGI is half-baked. He’s going to find out really quick that he’s in a box.”
Francis praised Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw, a Democrat from Fairfax, for pledging to stay aligned with the climate compact.
In a joint statement with Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie Locke of Hampton, Saslaw said a withdrawal “would be incredibly harmful to the health of Virginians, protection of our natural spaces, and preparation for a clean energy economy. We only have one world — with Hampton Roads perpetually flooded, the Chesapeake Bay’s future at risk, and Virginians’ health declining, there is no time left to play politics with Mother Nature.”
‘Laundry list’ of bills to roll back Clean Economy Act
Passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act in 2020 was the state’s ticket into RGGI because the law established a necessary carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program.
That sweeping act replaced Virginia’s voluntary renewable portfolio standard with a mandatory one that requires Dominion Energy to decarbonize the electric grid by 2045 and Appalachian Power to follow suit in 2050. That requires almost all coal-fired power plants to be closed by the end of 2024.
It also includes provisions to kickstart a massive offshore wind industry, expand incentives for utility-scale solar, and boost energy storage capacity as well as energy efficiency standards. In addition, it curtails biomass energy production and addresses the social cost of carbon and environmental justice.
“I’m seeing a whole laundry list of bills this session,” Francis said. “Some call for a wholesale repeal and others are attempts to tweak around the edges. One of the most egregious is to make waste coal qualify as a renewable source of energy.”
Not only did the Clean Economy Act put “Virginia on the map for climate action,” Francis said, the law’s certainty is also a key magnet for attracting and retaining businesses.
Mackin, of Ceres, said it’s remarkable that some Republicans are so eager to deconstruct a law that is so new it hasn’t been fully implemented yet.
“It’s going to come down to where the Senate lands,” she said. “It’s kind of up to them to hold the line this session.”
Clean Cars: Partisan tug of war
Over at the Southern Environmental Law Center, senior attorney Trip Pollard is somewhat dumbfounded that Republicans in both chambers are floating two bills to essentially gut Clean Cars, a measure green-lighted barely a year ago.
The law, directing automakers to deliver higher inventories of cleaner, fuel-efficient, and electric light- and medium-duty vehicles to the state, isn’t even slated to start until 2024.
“Why you would repeal something you just passed and hasn’t gone into effect yet is beyond me,” said Pollard, a longtime transportation specialist. “The Air Pollution Control Board just adopted the Clean Cars standards in December.”
In 2021, Clean Cars was carried on a straight party-line vote in the House and the Senate. The vote tally was 21-15 in the Senate. Three Republican senators opted not to vote on the measure and a fourth had died of COVID-19.
“It had gotten tied up in a partisan tug of war and it remains a partisan split as to whether this is a good idea or not,” Pollard said. “The people who were supportive last year are still so and understand the multiple benefits that flow from it. Those opposed are still opposed.”
In a nutshell, the law sets two standards. One requires manufacturers to roll out vehicles that steadily decrease emissions of heat-trapping gases, soot and smog-forming pollutants. The other requires a wider array of electric cars, SUVs and pickups, known as zero-emissions vehicles.
Those standards are connected with the federal Clean Air Act, so a two-year lag time is required. Clean Cars will likely line up with the rollout of electric vehicles for model year 2025.
On the brighter side, Pollard said he is tracking a smattering of bills and budget amendments that address electric vehicles, charging infrastructure and clean public transportation.
One would provide residents with purchase rebates for electric vehicles. Several others would fund vehicle charging infrastructure in communities that are rural, disadvantaged or in territory served by electric cooperatives. And yet another would create a fund to help public transit agencies transition to zero-emission buses via competitive grants.
“Clearly, electric vehicles are on the way,” Pollard said. “We need to have policies to accelerate that adoption and make sure there is equitable adoption.”
Far and away, however, his top mission this winter is keeping Clean Cars intact because of its economic, health and environmental benefits.
Nationwide, transportation began outpacing power as the leading emitter of heat-trapping gases several years ago. Still, at an estimated 48%, Virginia tailpipe emissions are unusually high.
When Northam signed Clean Cars into law, conservationists, health advocates and even some car dealers cheered Virginia for becoming the first state in the South — and then the 15th overall — to adopt such standards.
“This is not the time to undo the limited steps we have taken so far,” Pollard said. “Now is not the time to be going backward, when the world is moving forward.”
In December, a month before Northam left office, he committed Virginia to a multistate endeavor tasked with figuring out how to clean up emissions from medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. The goal is for participants to purchase only zero-emissions trucks, vans and other commercial vehicles by 2050.
If McAuliffe had won the governorship, Mackin has little doubt that rules associated with that initiative would have been addressed.
“But Youngkin hasn’t stated it as a policy,” she said. “I’m not expecting to see those policies move forward.”
Pollard said that while Virginia needs to do more to address all emissions from trucks, the action plan Northam signed doesn’t mean the state has to act immediately.
“It’s not on the table now,” he said. “We can talk further about what we need to do after we defend the progress we have already made.”
Wheeler on way out?
Two other issues — one directly related to the hurly-burly of the legislative session and one not — also have conservation groups on edge.
One is the possibility that Andrew Wheeler, Youngkin’s divisive Cabinet nominee, could become the secretary of natural and historic resources.
“Wheeler is bad news, and he’s also very convincing,” Francis said, adding that he demonstrated that deftness during a Jan. 25 interview with the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources. “As a coal lobbyist or leading the EPA or serving with [Oklahoma Republican] Jim Inhofe in the Senate, he’s made a career out of fighting the environment.”
Francis and others were relieved Tuesday when the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections signaled an intent to reject the appointment of the former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump administration. But they know not to count him out yet.
The committee voted 9-6, along party lines, to remove Wheeler from a resolution to confirm Youngkin’s Cabinet-level appointments.
Usually, a resolution with the full slate of Cabinet nominees is voted upon by both chambers. Each requires a simple majority for passage. In this case, unless something changes, the Senate will likely vote separately on Wheeler. It’s rare for Virginia legislators to spurn a Cabinet nominee.
On the day before Youngkin’s inauguration, a partnership of more than 150 environmental organizations had asked him to withdraw Wheeler’s nomination.
“His nomination is a slap in the face for anybody who cares about the environment,” said Francis, whose organization belongs to the Virginia Conservation Network. “At the end of the day, we have to kill that nomination.”
The other environmental issue involves a decision by the newly elected attorney general to pull Virginia out of a state coalition pushing the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that the federal EPA is authorized to regulate power plant emissions.
Supreme Court justices are scheduled to hear arguments in West Virginia v. EPA on Feb. 28.
“Virginia is no longer anti-coal,” Attorney General Jason Miyares said about his January decision, adding that the case “could devastate the coal industry.”
The case centers on opposition by GOP-led states, the coal industry and others to the Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration proposal to rein in greenhouse gases that was blocked from being put into place.
Francis called Miyares’ decision farcical because the “Virginia jobs he is trying to save are not at stake in this lawsuit.” He explained that the type of coal mined in the state fuels foundries and other large industries, not power plants.
“This is very much ideologically driven,” he said. “It’s a challenge to a regulation that doesn’t even exist anymore.”