If you’re a Virginian concerned about the environment—particularly the role power plants play in exacerbating climate change—the last three years have been good ones for you.
Yes, your energy bill has gone up—a little—by $2.39 per month, according to Dominion Energy, the state’s largest power producer. At the same time though, the Environmental Protection agency (EPA) has reported thatpower plant emissions have fallen 16.8% statewide. On top of that, more than $650 million have poured into Virginia coffers, money that has been used for a number of green projects, including building flood resistance in low-lying parts of the state and improving home energy efficiency, particularly in low-income residences. And then there’s this: If your state stays the course, Virginia’s overall energy emissions could reach net-zero by 2050.
Good news all around—or at least it was. Virginia’s light-speed progress on the environmental front was a result of joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in 2020, a consortium of 12 northeastern states, established in 2005 and designed to reduce greenhouse emissions within their borders and across the region.
For the original ten members of RGGI, the system has worked extraordinarily well for 18 years, with the overall alliance reducing total emissions by 50%—twice as fast as states in the rest of the country—and raising $6 billion to invest in local communities.
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But for Virginia all of that looks to be coming to a halt. Even before taking office in 2021, Governor Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, pledged to pull the state out of RGGI, claiming it amounted to a tax on homeowners. On June 7, 2023, his administration began to make good on that promise, with the Air Pollution Control Board voting 4-3 to quit the alliance. Youngkin—who called RGGI a “failed program that is not only a regressive tax on families and businesses… but also does nothing to reduce pollution”—aims to make Virginia’s exit official before the end of the summer.
Not surprisingly, environmental groups both in Virginia and nationwide disagree. “The vast majority of Virginians say they want to stay in RGGI,” says Nate Benforado, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s very successful at reducing emissions and it provides huge health benefits to Youngkin’s constituents.”
One crack in the RGGI wall has environmentalists worried that more could form. Pennsylvania, for example, joined the alliance in April 2022, but opponents have gone to the state supreme court to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s membership. (They argue that joining RGGI was an administrative action taken by the Department of Environmental Protection, a step that only the Pennsylvania legislature could take.) The case has been tied up in court since, and RGGI opponents are taking heart from Virginia’s action.
“[The] decision by Virginia’s Air Board to repeal the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a glaring example of yet another state to recognize that RGGI is nothing but an oppressive carbon tax,” said Pennsylvania state Senator Gene Yaw in a statement. Meanwhile, North Carolina, which is also considering joining the consortium, could be discouraged by the Virginia and Pennsylvania developments.
A Popular Program
Under RGGI, power plants in member states that generate at least 25 megawatts of energy—enough to power more than 3,000 homes for a year—set a price on a quarterly basis to buy allowances for every ton of CO2 they produce. In June, it was $12.73 per allowance, raising a collective $280 million—money that has been invested back into the states’ green economy. The number of allowances available decreases by 3% every year, with the power plants making up the difference in output by either increasing power plant efficiency or investing in renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
It’s been a successful program. Virginia’s power plants have gotten steadily cleaner since the state joined the consortium, releasing 32.7 million tons of CO2 in 2020; 28.6 million in 2021; and 27.2 million in 2022. Still that’s a lot of carbon going into the air—and a lot of cash the power plants are paying for allowances. In the fourth quarter of 2022 alone, the state saw $78 million in revenue, with the total for the year topping $300 million.
That kind of bounty is popular with Virginians. At the end of January, Virginia opened up its Town Hall Portal for a 60-day comment period, inviting Virginians to weigh in on whether or not the state should pull out of the consortium. Roughly 1,900 constituents responded, 1,300 of whom voted to remain in RGGI. And in a more recent, second round of comments in April, the Town Hall Portal put support for RGGI at 88% statewide.
As Benforado describes: “We had people [in the portal] saying, ‘I am a pastor. And I think we have to do this;’ ‘I’m a college student and I have anxiety about climate change;’ ‘I’m a doctor and I worry about air quality and asthma attacks and children.’ You know, there’s just so many reasons to keep us in RGGI.”
As one person wrote during the first comment period: “Pulling Virginia out of RGGI, as Gov. Youngkin wants, will strip away critical funding that local governments need as they wrestle with rising seas, flooding caused by sudden downpours, and extreme heat that are the byproducts of a warming climate,”
That matter of flooding is one that environmental groups point to again and again, as coastal Virginia is increasingly inundated. “Millions of Virginians live in places where there is some of the fastest sea level rise in America,” says Walton Shepherd, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Down in the Hampton Roads area, in Norfolk, those people are just being slammed by freakishly extreme weather.”
Given the widespread popularity of the program, some environmentalists wonder to what degree political opposition is being influenced by the fossil fuel industry (after all, the final aim is to wean the grid off of fossil fuels and onto clean renewables). While it’s unclear whether this is the situation in Virginia, in Pennsylvania, documents obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute last year show coal and gas industry lobbyists circulating a letter among lawmakers calling for the state to leave RGGI.
A Constitutional Chess Battle
For those who disagree with the actions taken by Youngkin and the Air Pollution Control Board, there are constitutional chess pieces to play, just as there are in Pennsylvania. But it remains unclear which side will win—and just when the battle will be joined. The board’s ruling must first be published in the State Register, which has not taken place yet, but which Travis Voyles, Virginia’s Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources, told the Virginia Register would happen “sooner rather than later.” It is only when that publication does occur that any potential lawsuits can begin—and the opponents of the withdrawal believe they have a strong case.
Virginia’s lawmakers voted in 2020 to join RGGI, with the state’s official participation in the alliance beginning on January 1, 2021. Then-Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed the bill into law. After the recent action by the Air Pollution Control Board, environmental groups and Democrats in the assembly howled, arguing that a law passed by the legislature can’t simply be undone by an administrative body and a gubernatorial signature.
“That is clearly unconstitutional,” says Benforado.
“Legally speaking, Gov. Youngkin is slowly trudging uphill into machine gun fire,” says Shepherd. “We are confident he is going to get trounced in the courts.”
Not so, argues the Governor’s office. “Our State Air Pollution Control Board has acted and believes that Virginia is not required to be in RGGI,” says Voyles. “The Office of the Attorney General confirmed the State Air Pollution Control Board has the legal authority to take action on the regulatory proposal using the full regulatory process—and the Board voted to do just that.”
The impact the Virginia battle will have on similar fights taking place in Pennsylvania and North Carolina is for now also unclear. In May, justices on the Pennsylvania state supreme court appeared split on whether former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf usurped the legislature’s powers when he used administrative action to bring the state into the alliance. The court has not yet indicated when it will rule. In North Carolina, RGGI supporters had hoped to have the state join the alliance by 2024, but in March, the state legislature blocked the move for reasons similar to those being made in Pennsylvania: that it was implemented administratively, by the state Department of Environmental Quality, rather than by legislative action. Two defections could presage other ones if political majorities change in member-state legislatures.
There is a precedent for where this could lead. On the other side of the country, the Western Climate Initiativeimplemented a cap-and-trade program when it was established in 2007 and 2008, with membership made up of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Utah, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec. Defections and partisan pushback over the years have reduced that membership to just California and the four Canadian provinces—a warning for RGGI that no climate alliance, however successful, is immune to partisan infighting.
For now though, RGGI supporters are hoping for the best in Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and the rest of the alliance. The environmental and financial benefits of RGGI do seem self-evident. But combat in the legislatures and in the courts remains another, exceedingly confounding, variable. “Clean air is a universally held value in America, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum,” says Shepherd. “But sometimes politics just takes the higher precedence.”