Bucking D.C. and Republican legislature, Virginia governor moves to limit carbon emissions

If the federal government won’t do it, states will.

With federal efforts to limit carbon emissions on hold, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe opts to begin a regulatory process to reduce power plant emissions in his state. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
With federal efforts to limit carbon emissions on hold, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe opts to begin a regulatory process to reduce power plant emissions in his state. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) on Tuesday instructed state officials to begin a process of establishing regulations in Virginia that will reduce carbon emissions from power plants, a plan that could include the state linking with emissions-trading programs in other states.

“Beginning today, Virginia will lead the way to cut carbon and lean in on the clean energy future,” McAuliffe said in a statement.

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, the governor’s spokesman said. Furthermore, with the future of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan in doubt, McAuliffe believed Virginia needed to take action on its own to regulate power plant carbon emissions.

“This is an incredibly bold step for a southern governor of a swing state,” Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Will Cleveland told ThinkProgress. “If D.C. is going to abdicate all leadership responsibility to address carbon and climate change, then it’s going to fall to those members in the state governments who are visionaries and leaders to do so. And McAuliffe is demonstrating that he wants to be one of those.”

In March, President Donald Trump signed a sweeping executive order that, in part, required the EPA to review and rework the Clean Power Plan.

McAuliffe’s executive directive instructs the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to draft a regulation for the State Air Pollution Control Board to abate, control, or limit carbon dioxide from power plants. The rule is intended to “allow for the use of market-based mechanisms and the trading of carbon dioxide allowances through a multi-state trading program.” The proposed regulation is due to be presented to the air board by December 31.

The state air board will then take a vote on whether to put the draft regulations out for public notice and comment under the Virginia Administrative Process Act. Once this regulatory process has begun, a future governor would have to take similar administrative procedures steps to undo any rules that are adopted.

“A subsequent governor will not be able, with a stroke of a pen, invalidate a rule,” Cleveland said. “It’s up to the state air board to make the rule, or to amend the rule, or to undo the rule. The governor cannot do it unilaterally.”

Protesters carry signs near Dominion Energy’s headquarters Richmond, Virginia, opposing the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
Protesters carry signs near Dominion Energy’s headquarters Richmond, Virginia, opposing the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

In the past, environmental activists have protested McAuliffe’s support for major natural gas pipelines that would travel through Virginia. The governor increasingly had become the target of protests against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, whose lead sponsor is Dominion Energy, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Even if he opposed the pipelines, McAuliffe has said he “lacks authority” to stop the pipelines.

Dominion Energy, the politically powerful parent company of Dominion Virginia Power, the largest electric utility in the state, has been preparing for carbon regulation and appreciates being part of a stakeholder engagement process on carbon emissions, company spokesman David Botkins said.

“We have made tremendous progress reducing our carbon footprint and have some of the strictest CO2 limits on record at our newest power stations, and are committed to bringing a lot more renewable energy onto the grid,” Botkins said.

Natural gas emits slightly more than half as much CO2 than coal when burned, although environmental advocates point out that today’s most common form of natural gas extraction — fracking — and methane leaks have a significant impact on the local environment and on greenhouse gas emissions. Methane traps heat 86 times more effectively than CO2 over a 20-year period, and experts warn that transitioning to natural gas will not enable the country to meet its emissions reduction goals.

While the governor has been a consistent supporter of the natural gas pipeline projects, McAuliffe has been working on reducing carbon emissions from power plants for a number of years. Last summer, he issued a separate directive that required Virginia’s secretary of Natural Resources to convene a work group to study and recommend methods to reduce carbon emissions. The work group sent its recommendations, which included a market-based trading mechanism, to the governor last week.

The market-based trading model opens the door to Virginia engaging in carbon emissions trading with other states. For Virginia to become a full member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), for example, 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, McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said. Given its “poor record” on clean energy, the General Assembly would probably vote against Virginia joining RGGI, he added.

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 steps the governor is taking are the things he can do within his executive power,” Coy said. “Full membership in RGGI is probably not an option for Virginia. There may be a way to link what we’re doing to another market.”

RGGI’s market-based design to cap and reduce carbon pollution from power plants has helped participating states realize significant benefits, including consumer savings, job creation, and public health improvements, according to Katie Dykes, chair of RGGI Inc.’s board of directors and chair of the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

“We recognize the added benefits of a broader trading market in achieving cost-effective pollution reductions, and would be pleased to speak with Virginia or any state interested in learning more about our successful program,” Dykes said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “Virginia has not been involved in the ongoing program review discussions.”

SELC’s Cleveland said he hopes McAuliffe’s executive directive sends a signal to other states that there are ways to address climate and carbon pollution that don’t involve waiting for the federal government to act.

“It’s a good pathway forward. It’s designed to take advantage of market economics. Hopefully this is a template that other states will adopt,” he said.