Virginia’s election results are good news for the planet

Gov.-elect Ralph Northam pledges to continue his predecessor's actions to cut carbon emissions.

Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, right, celebrates his election victory with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and his wife Dorothy on November 7, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, right, celebrates his election victory with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and his wife Dorothy on November 7, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Cliff Owen

The election of Ralph Northam (D) as governor of Virginia — combined with the Democratic Party’s huge gains in the House of Delegates in Tuesday’s statewide elections — should provide a boost to current Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) efforts to promote climate action.

Northam, the state’s current lieutenant governor, made acting on climate change and protecting the environment top issues in the governor’s race. Now, he is expected to move forward with McAuliffe’s directive to reduce carbon emissions in Virginia — which calls for Virginia to move toward becoming carbon trading-ready, allowing the state to link to a multi-state carbon allowance trading program such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

Along with supporting efforts to combat climate change, Northam also opposes oil and gas drilling off Virginia’s coast and is against lifting the state’s ban on uranium mining.

“To pick up slack created by the Trump administration’s EPA budget cuts, [Northam] will build a Virginia ‘conservation cabinet’ led by the secretary of natural resources to provide guidance in addressing the current impact of climate change and the policy advancements we can implement now to help solve the problem and reduce carbon pollution in the future,” Northam emphasized in his campaign platform.


In May, McAuliffe instructed state officials to begin a process of establishing regulations in Virginia that will reduce carbon emissions from power plants. With the future of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan in doubt and the Trump administration’s plans to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, McAuliffe believed Virginia needed to take action on its own to regulate power plant carbon emissions.

McAuliffe opted to take an executive-action approach based on the likelihood that the Republican-led state General Assembly would not have approved a plan to address carbon emissions. But after Tuesday’s election, with Democrats poised to possibly regain control of the General Assembly or share power with the Republicans, there could be greater opportunities for getting carbon emissions-cutting plans put into place.

RGGI is a cooperative effort among the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector. The initiative establishes a regional cap on the amount of carbon dioxide pollution that power plants can emit by issuing a limited number of tradable carbon allowances. It has been lauded for reducing energy costs while reducing emissions since its launch in 2009.

For Virginia to become a full member of RGGI, the revenues that would come from that program would need to be appropriated in some fashion, which would require an act of the state General Assembly.


Tuesday’s elections delivered other positive news for the RGGI program. In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy easily beat the Republican candidate for governor. Current New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) withdrew the state from the program in 2011; Murphy has pledged to rejoin RGGI.

Environmental groups congratulated Northam on his victory in Virginia. “We look forward to working with this administration over the next four years to grow our clean energy economy, safeguard clean water, and preserve our beautiful land resources for future generations of Virginians, while pushing back against radical attacks on the environment at the federal level,” Michael Town, executive director of Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement Tuesday night.

Justin Fairfax (D) also won the election for Virginia lieutenant governor, while Mark Herring easily won reelection as Virginia attorney general. As lieutenant governor, Fairfax will be able to break ties in the state Senate. Republicans currently hold a slim 21-19 majority in the state Senate, but that could shift in 2019 when all Senate seats in Virginia will be up for grabs.

In his first term as attorney general, Herring defended the Clean Power Plan in federal court and paved the way for tighter controls over fracking at the local level, according to the League of Conservation Voters. “We have full faith that with [Herring] as our attorney general for the next four years, we’ll be able to further protect the commonwealth’s clean air, clean air and open spaces, while fending off attacks on our environment coming from the Trump White House,” Town said.

During the campaign, Northam drew protests from environmentalists and landowners for not opposing major natural natural gas pipelines that would travel across central and southwestern Virginia. Ed Gillespie (R) won the vast majority of votes in all of the counties that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline would traverse, except for Montgomery County, Virginia, home to the college town of Blacksburg.


Fairfax opposes construction of both natural gas pipelines, a position that led to controversy last month when the Northam campaign agreed to print campaign fliers that included himself and Herring, but not Fairfax. The decision to remove Fairfax came at the request of officials at Laborers’ International Union of North America, who decided against endorsing Fairfax because of his refusal to support the two natural gas pipelines.

African American leaders called the decision to exclude Fairfax, who is black, from the fliers as as a slap in the face to black voters. “It sends a signal across the state that we, as black voters, are expendable,” Quentin James, executive director of The Collective, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee, told ThinkProgress last month.

Like Gillespie, Northam was backed by the Dominion Energy, the powerful Richmond, Virginia-based energy company, during the primaries last spring. Dominion executives, lobbyists, and board members gave a total of $35,085 from January 1 to March 31, 2017 to candidates running for governor, with almost all of it going to Northam and Gillespie, according to a report from the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog organization.

Dominion and its representatives gave the most heavily to Northam during that period, totaling $20,510, and contributed $11,875 to Gillespie. Dominion is the primary backer of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.