After Republicans in Virginia’s General Assembly shut down the McAuliffe administration’s work on implementing the EPA Clean Power Plan last winter, Governor McAuliffe decided on an end run. He issued Executive Order 57, directing administration officials to recommend ways to reduce carbon pollution from the state’s power plants. The workgroup led by Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward is holding meetings this fall to gather information and advice.
This puts Ward in something of a pickle. Meeting the climate challenge requires Virginia to commit to a future with less fossil fuel, while McAuliffe is championing Dominion Power’s plans to radically expand fossil fuel investments in the Commonwealth.
Last week the European Union joined the United States, China, India, Canada, Mexico and dozens of other countries in ratifying the Paris climate accord, putting it over the threshold needed for it to take effect. The goal of the accord is to limit the increase in world temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, a level beyond which climate effects are projected to be catastrophic. Given mounting concerns that 2 degrees isn’t sufficiently protective, the 197 signatory nations also agreed to a stretch goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The U.S. is the world’s second highest emitter of CO2 after China, and our average emissions per person are two-and-a-half times that of the Chinese. No other country has contributed more to the problem. American leadership was key to bringing other countries on board, and it will be key to implementing solutions.
A few niggling details remain, like how we are actually going to do this. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a first step, but its scope is narrow. It addresses only carbon emissions from electric generating plants in use as of 2012, not new sources (though states can choose to do that). It doesn’t address emissions outside the electric sector. It also doesn’t address methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure, a climate threat that seriously undercuts the climate benefit of utilities switching from coal to gas. Its goal of reducing electric-sector carbon pollution by 30% by 2030 is nowhere near what’s needed.
To meet its Paris commitment, the U.S. will have to dramatically reduce fossil fuel use in everything from electricity and heating to manufacturing and transportation. The good news is that the technologies to do this exist, and they are getting better and cheaper by the day. The bad news is that even an all-hands-on-deck approach would need time to work, and there are still way too many hands sitting idle in their bunks below deck.
Future federal regulation that goes well beyond the Clean Power Plan is inevitable. Through whatever means—a carbon tax, removal of fossil fuel subsidies, new incentives, or simple mandates—renewable energy has to take over the power sector, with fossil fuels limited to a supporting role before being phased out altogether. Building codes must be dramatically strengthened to minimize energy consumption, and transportation must be electrified so vehicles run on wind and solar, not gasoline or diesel. And all this has to happen starting now.
With the U.S. committed to this path, it makes no sense for any state to pursue a fossil fuel-heavy strategy simply because federal mandates aren’t in place yet. The ratification of the Paris accord means all new fossil fuel investments—drilling machinery, fracking wells, pipelines, generating plants—must be evaluated against the likelihood that they will have to be abandoned well before the end of their useful life.
In Virginia this includes proposed new fracked-gas transmission pipelines; a new natural gas generating station that Dominion Power just received approval to build; as much as 9,000 megawatts more of natural gas generating plants that Dominion wants to build; and at least two new natural gas generating plants proposed by other developers, who would use the new gas pipelines to supply them. Altogether, these projects represent tens of billions of dollars in investments in infrastructure that would have to be shut down and left to decay within a decade or two.
All this could happen without violating the Clean Power Plan, if Virginia takes advantage of a loophole allowing it to exclude new gas plants from its implementation plan. Dominion’s gas plants alone would increase carbon emissions from Virginia by as much as 83%. That won’t get us to Paris.
It seems obvious that these investments would be better channeled into carbon-free renewable energy and reducing energy use through efficiency and building improvements. These are the “no regrets” investments that make sense for human health and economic development reasons anyway. With the Paris accord, the decision has gone from no-regrets to no-brainer.
But Dominion clearly thinks a pipelines-and-gas-plants approach will make more money for its shareholders. Dominion is betting that regulators will allow it to bill customers for the costs of new fossil fuel infrastructure even if it turns out that using it means paying a high carbon tax, or not using it at all. Dominion counts on the prevalence of climate doubt and magical thinking within the Virginia legislature and the staff of the SCC to muffle the wake-up call from Paris.
This is a deeply irresponsible and immoral calculus.
To date, Governor McAuliffe has backed Dominion at every turn. With only a year and a half left in his term, the “jobs governor” wants to lure businesses to Virginia quickly with the promise of cheap natural gas. It’s a strategy that might backfire in the short run, as savvy businesses go to states better preparing for life after Paris. Surely, it will backfire in the long run, when Virginia is left paying off unwanted fossil fuel infrastructure. The Paris accord marks a good point for McAuliffe to change his allegiance.
Indeed, after Paris, nothing will ever be the same. The days of natural gas as a bridge fuel are rapidly ending, and the U.S. has committed itself to breaking from its fossil fuel past. Executive Order 57 offers Virginia an opportunity to map out a carbon-free strategy. Time is short. Allons-y!