Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration on Wednesday announced its latest plans for how it intended to remove Virginia from a regional carbon market, a move that critics say is not authorized by law, would drain money. major government funding programs and would undermine the fight against climate change.
Acting Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Travis Voyles told a meeting of the State Air Pollution Control Board that the administration plans to remove Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative by changing the regulations that govern state participation in the market.
Regulations treat typically takes 18 to 24 months from start to finish, after which the air board will vote on repealing the regulations.
The move is a pivotal part of the approach outlined in an executive order Youngkin issued early in his term. This plan called for a two-pronged approach that would first repeal the regulations through an emergency provision, and then permanently eliminate them through the normal regulatory process.
The full regulatory process “will allow for public comment…provides some certainty and is going well with the contract period,” Voyles told the Virginia Mercury after the meeting.
Virginia’s three-year contract with RGGI, Inc., the organization that coordinates the market, ends next year.
RGGI is a carbon reduction market involving 10 other Mid-Atlantic and New England states in which energy producers must buy allowances for the carbon they emit, and a cap is placed on the global carbon emissions.
The proceeds from the purchase of these allowances are then donated to the State. In Virginia, they are routed to flood relief and energy efficiency programs for low-income people. Virginia has received some $379 million in proceeds from RGGI to date.
Under state law, electric utilities are permitted to pass on the costs of participating in the RGGI to ratepayers. The Youngkin administration said these increased costs, which average $2.39 per month for Dominion residential customers, are a burden on taxpayers. Dominion has since stopped charging customers a specific fee for participating in the RGGI.
“RGGI is a bad deal for Virginia,” Voyles said, adding that the state can’t control market costs for benefits, which have been rising.
But groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center continue to say the Youngkin administration cannot remove Virginia from the RGGI by changing the regulations, because the regulations are the result of legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2020.
“It’s not in accordance with the law,” said SELC attorney Nate Benforado.
From 2010 to 2020, before Virginia joined the RGGI, emissions from power plants did not decline, Benforado said, referring to a March report on the program that the Environmental Quality Department carried out at Youngkin’s request. Emissions fell by more than 30% with participation in RGGI, he added.
“Virginia needs RGGI,” Benforado said.
Reactions from the seven-member council differed between the four appointees by Youngkin, a Republican, and the three appointees by former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat.
Northam’s appointee, Hope Cupit, President and CEO of SERCAPan organization that helps low- to middle-income people in the southeastern United States, questioned whether it was constitutional to override the RGGI law passed by the General Assembly by way of regulation.
Cupit previously said he received an email from a lawyer in the attorney general’s office stating that the air board did not have the authority to remove Virginia from RGGI. A legal action to force the publication of this email under the state’s Freedom of Information Act is still awaiting an order from a Charlottesville Circuit Court judge.
She also noted the benefits of RGGI-funded flood protection programs given the recent flood in Buchanan County.
“We sometimes feel forgotten,” said Cupit, who lives in Bedford.
Another Northam appointee, retired pulmonologist Lornel Tompkins, said a year of data on Virginia’s participation in RGGI is not enough to determine its effectiveness. She also questioned why the RGGI fee was under attack, compared to other fees paid by utility customers, and said the costs could be lower in the long run.
“Why don’t we go after the General Assembly to change the rules, rather than take something away from the state or the commonwealth which is, by some factors, found to be positive?” Tomkins said.
Conversely, David Hudgins, nominated by Youngkin, executive director of the Virginia Energy Consumer Trust, a skeptical renewable energy advocacy group, expressed concern about the impact of the RGGI on the state’s ability to attract business due to rising energy costs. Virginia has already been able to attract Northeastern businesses by touting its lower electricity rates, he said.
“If we become affiliated (with) the northeast, the states in the south will start sending their economic development teams here because our cost structure changes and reflects the northeast more than we do with people in the south. “, said Hudgins.
Another Youngkin appointee, retired attorney Jay Holloway, questioned whether the RGGI actually capped carbon emissions because it allowed producers to buy allowances above the cap.
But Michael Dowd, director of DEQ’s Air and Renewable Energy Division, said allocations can only exceed the cap by a certain percentage.
“There is a ceiling, in the general sense, because it is a regional ceiling. There is a finite number of quotas for sale,” Dowd said.
The environmental outcry
Several environmental groups gathered outside the meeting venue at the Community College Workforce Alliance in Richmond, with rallies also held statewide in Roanoke, Harrisonburg, Woodbridge, Abingdon and Virginia Beach.
In Richmond, activists posted caricatures of Youngkin and former Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler while chanting “RGGI is the law.”
Wheeler, who is an adviser to Youngkin, was appointed to his current post after Senate Democrats thwarted his nomination for the post of secretary of natural and historic resources. Democrats’ decision led Republicans to block 11 other Northam-era people appointmentincluding two air board members.
Leah Jones, coordinator of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light, a group focused on climate and environmental justice, called RGGI “an important stepping stone for our state to provide funds to those affected by the energy load and severe flooding while encouraging… to act on the climate and reduce Virginia’s carbon emissions.
Jones and five other public speakers spoke in support of RGGI at Wednesday’s meeting. Virginia Manufacturers Association executive director Brett Vassey opposed it, calling RGGI a tax and accusing it of being redundant given Virginia’s emissions reduction efforts through the Virginia Clean Economy Act.
Although the Virginia Clean Economy Act sets aggressive carbon reduction targets for the state’s regulated utilities, it does not apply to non-public power producers, which generate more than a quarter of carbon emissions. of the State subject to the RGGI.
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