Va. emerges as next battleground for clean car rules

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, July 6, 2018

After Colorado’s adoption of tougher clean car standards last month, environmentalists have turned their attention to getting another state to rebuke the Trump administration on fuel economy: Virginia.

“We’re kind of jealous that Colorado got in there. We wanted to be that 14th state to set those commitments,” said Kelsey Crane, the Sierra Club’s northern Virginia program coordinator.

“We definitely think Virginia should be taking the same action to maintain these really strong standards,” Crane said. “It’s a pretty big climate solution.”

At issue is the executive order signed by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) adopting more stringent clean car rules in the face of the Trump administration’s push to weaken federal standards (E&E News PM, June 19).

Hickenlooper’s move was cheered by national green groups as an important step toward curbing planet-warming emissions. Transportation recently eclipsed the power sector as the country’s largest source of carbon dioxide.

The federal Clean Air Act allows California to set tougher tailpipe emissions rules, subject only to a waiver from EPA. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have chosen to adopt the Golden State’s standards under the pollution law’s Section 177.

Environmentalists see Virginia as a prime candidate for becoming a Section 177 state given that the governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, has shown a commitment to climate issues.

Greens have spoken with staff in Northam’s and the attorney general’s offices. And the Sierra Club, Virginia Asthma Coalition, Environment Virginia, the League of Conservation Voters and other groups are planning an event later this month that will highlight the benefits of the standards for air quality. A mother whose child suffers from asthma has been invited to speak at the event.

Elizabeth Brandt, an organizer with Moms Clean Air Force in Virginia, said she’s been rallying mothers to the cause.

“I’m a mom. I’m a social worker. But I can see that the standards are really working to our benefit in many ways,” Brandt said.

“So I got really involved in organizing other moms to go to a hearing in September on the issue,” she said. “We’ve been trying to help any state that is taking its own separate action to protect consumers from air pollution by having stricter standards.”

Groups are trying several tacks in their bid to bolster Old Dominion’s clean care standards.

One option is for Northam to sign an executive order adopting the tougher standards, as was the case in Colorado.

“We have been chatting with members of the governor’s administration about the advantages of these rules, and there’s definitely interest in the governor’s office, particularly from a public health standpoint,” Crane said.

A second option is for Northam to include a move on fuel efficiency in the state’s revamped energy plan.

The Virginia Energy Plan was last updated in 2014 by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), and it’s due for another update this fall.

“We are in the process of putting together our state energy plan update. Transportation obviously is going to be a big piece of that as we kind of flesh it out,” said Matt Strickler, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources.

A third option is for Attorney General Mark Herring (D) to take some sort of action, although it remains unclear what exactly his office could do. Herring joined a recent lawsuit from 17 states and the District of Columbia against the Trump administration over its push to loosen the standards (E&E News PM, May 1).

“Attorney General Mark Herring obviously has joined the suit against EPA,” said Terra Pascarosa, founder of TerraScapes Environmental Consulting. “So I think his office is in theory very supportive of this.”

Regardless of the path forward, one thing is clear: The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) would likely have a hand in crafting the policy establishing the low-emission vehicle (LEV) program.

“I think DEQ would have to be involved, since it does involve automotive environmental regulatory changes,” said Mike Dowd, director of the air division at the Virginia DEQ.

“But it’s not something we’ve really looked at in detail yet at DEQ,” Dowd said. “I think this is all very new.”

A spokeswoman for Northam didn’t respond to email and phone messages seeking comment.