Has the energy transition hit a roadblock in Virginia, or just a rough patch of pavement?

Photo credit: Mark Dixon from Pittsburgh, PA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Election Day was a tough day for climate advocates. 

After two years of historic progress that included passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), the centerpiece of the Commonwealth’s plan to decarbonize the electric sector by 2050, voters handed a narrow victory to its critics. Republicans will take over as governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and, barring any surprises in two recounts, the House of Delegates.

During the campaign, former Carlyle Group CEO Glenn Youngkin criticized the VCEA for raising rates and putting “our entire energy grid at risk.”  While largely supportive of solar and wind (especially offshore wind, which he “wholly supports”), Youngkin also argued for more natural gas to feed “the rip-roaring economy that I’m going to build.” This is, essentially, the old “all of the above” strategy we hoped had been buried for good, coupled with unfounded fear-mongering about power outages. 

On the bright side, Governor-elect Youngkin has acknowledged that climate change is real and is causing damage here in Virginia. At the same time, he supposedly told a Norfolk State University audience in October that he didn’t know what is causing climate change. It seems likely this was a clumsy lie prompted by political expedience, rather than a reflection of actual ignorance. Two years ago Youngkin touted Carlyle Group’s record as “the first major private investment firm to operate on a carbon-neutral basis.” That’s not something you do just to be on trend.

So yes, Youngkin knows that increasing greenhouse gas emissions are driving the warming of the planet, and at Carlyle he was willing to do something about it. But now that he’s a politician, Youngkin is embracing natural gas in a way that suggests he’d rather ignore the truth about methane than take a stance unpopular in his party. Heck, for all we know, he may now even subscribe to the plan recently laid out by U.S. Senate Republicans to address climate change by increasing natural gas production and exports. 

Wait, you say, isn’t this also the Russian plan? Sell more gas and, if worse comes to worst, Siberia heats up enough to become a vacation destination? Let’s just say it’s not a coincidence that the senators promoting this “solution” come from North Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming—all states that are big energy exporters, but more importantly, where people think a few degrees of warming would be kind of nice. But given that the population of all three states combined is significantly less than the population of Northern Virginia alone, we probably don’t want them making policy for us.

The fact that we have no idea where Youngkin stands on the need for climate solutions is only one part of the problem facing climate activists in Virginia’s upcoming legislative session. The bigger problem is that a lot of our Republican legislators are outright hostile to climate science and Virginia’s framework for the energy transition. These folks are loaded for bear, and they will use their narrow win to flood the House with bills aimed at rolling back the energy transition. 

In addition to VCEA, the Republican hit list includes the Clean Energy and Community Preparedness Act, which directed Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI); the Clean Car Standard, which promotes sales of electric vehicles; and the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy, which makes the transition to a net-zero-energy economy official state policy.  

Whether these bills will pass the House is less certain, given the benefits these laws are already delivering. The VCEA spurred “incredible growth” in solar installations, making Virginia fourth in the nation for new solar generation in 2020, and the world’s biggest offshore wind blade manufacturer just announced plans for a facility in Portsmouth, Virginia. Does anyone really want to stop that momentum? Tens of millions of dollars are already flowing to climate adaptation projects in coastal areas thanks to RGGI’s carbon allowance auctions. Pulling the plug on that cash flow would hurt Republicans representing the area. 

Notwithstanding the rhetoric, the VCEA is good for business and consumers. Ratepayers will save money through the mandated closure of uneconomic coal, oil and biomass plants, and by the removal of barriers to distributed renewable energy generation. Solar’s low cost positions it to overtake fossil fuels as the go-to generation source for utilities, but the VCEA creates the market certainty that attracts investment. And offshore wind—the most expensive part of the VCEA, but the part Youngkin apparently likes—is also popular on both sides of the aisle as an engine of investment and job creation.   

That doesn’t mean anti-VCEA bills won’t pass the House; being bad policy is never enough to kill legislation, or even stop people who ought to know better from voting for it. In 2019, an anti-RGGI bill from Del. Charles Poindexter (R-Franklin) passed both the House and Senate on party-line votes. It was prevented from taking effect only thanks to a veto from Governor Northam. Today, I can count very few House Republicans who won’t toe the same party line.

With Democrats still in charge of the Senate, Youngkin isn’t likely to find a RGGI or VCEA repeal on his desk. Creating an energy transition framework was one of the Democrats’ biggest successes in the past two years, and protecting that success will be a party priority. 

But there are many ways Republicans can undercut climate action. They might attract just enough Democratic votes with bills that, for example, grant exemptions for powerful industries that have friends among Senate Democrats. They could also use the budget process to undermine the transition by starving agencies and grant programs of funding. 

If politics doesn’t completely get in the way, though, there should be room for consensus on some new areas of progress. Highly efficient schools with solar roofs save money for taxpayers; electric school buses are good for children’s health; solar on abandoned mine sites promise employment to residents of Southwest Virginia. 

Beyond the General Assembly, executive agencies have had the job of implementing all the various parts of the RGGI program and the VCEA. And the agencies, of course, answer to the governor. The Department of Environmental Quality will have signed off—or not—on the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s permits before Younkin takes office, but after that, we can expect DEQ to return to being the easy-permitting, lax-enforcing agency it was of old.

As for the Department of Energy, that agency has been going gangbusters turning Virginia into a clean energy leader and promoting new models like brownfields redevelopment and clean energy financing. Hopefully those efforts offer so much in the way of economic opportunities that a businessman like Youngkin will want them to continue. 

But that, like so much else, remains to be seen. 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on November 16, 2021.

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