Va. Republicans block state bid to join RGGI

Source: By Rod Kuckro, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, April 8, 2019

As of Wednesday, it looked as if Virginia was on the verge of joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program that mandates reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in 10 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states.

Then there was a party-line vote in the General Assembly.

Lawmakers were meeting in Richmond for a final, one-day session to weigh Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s roughly 100 proposed changes to legislation and the state budget crafted earlier this year.

By a narrow margin, the Legislature failed to strike from the state’s budget Republican-written language forbidding Virginia from spending any money “to support membership or participation in” RGGI without the expressed approval of the General Assembly.

Lawmakers also upheld language mandating that any money raised through membership in RGGI or a similar organization has to be deposited in the state general fund and cannot be dedicated to specific uses such as low-income energy efficiency, clean energy, efforts to combat sea-level rise or direct bill assistance. Those are all causes RGGI states support with funds raised through the program.

Republicans hold a 51-49 edge in the House of Delegates and a 21-19 advantage in the state Senate. All 140 seats are up for election in November.

Earlier this year, Republicans voted almost unanimously for a bill that, like the budget language, would have prevented Virginia from participating in RGGI. Northam vetoed that bill, saying it violates the state’s constitution.

The state’s Department of Environmental Quality is finalizing regulations to reduce the CO2 pollution from power plants by 30 percent between 2020 and 2030. The agency estimates it would cost consumers about a dollar per month while accelerating the transition to clean energy.

The final vote by the Air Pollution Control Board is set for April 19.

Supporters of joining RGGI are hoping that Northam will veto the two budget amendments before April 19 and allow the DEQ vote to occur.

“We urge him to do it immediately so we don’t have any confusion heading into April 19. And then we’ll get this done,” said Harrison Wallace, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Fund.

The General Assembly was unable to override a Northam veto earlier this year of the bill barring RGGI participation.

The Clean Air Act gives states the authority to regulate carbon, Wallace said, calling the Republican move “reckless.”

He expects the issue will factor into November’s legislative races, especially in the Hampton Roads area where more than half of the region’s 17 lawmakers are Republicans who voted against joining RGGI.

“I think people who are seeing their houses getting flooded all the time and having to deal with rising seas becoming an urgent problem are going to think about that in the voting booth,” Wallace said.

Dominion Energy Inc. is Virginia’s dominant utility, and its revised long-range plan unveiled several weeks ago has as a central tenet the presumption of a state or federal mandate to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Its integrated resource plan for the next 15 years envisions Virginia joining RGGI.