Virginia will usher in a 21-member environmental justice council on Wednesday, part of a broad slate of legislation made possible when Democrats flipped the House and Senate in November.
The package of environmental bills taking effect also includes one that puts Virginia in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, joining a coalition of Northeast states trying to curb carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector.
The Democrats’ winning of majorities in both the House of Delegates and the Senate gave them control of both houses and the governor’s mansion in Virginia for the first time since 1994.
“What a difference an election can make,” said Del. Rip Sullivan (D). “When I first came into the general assembly in 2014 and started pushing for energy efficiency legislation, no one talked about it. And now here we are, in 2020.”
Under H.B. 1042, the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice will be created to advise the governor and general assembly on “how to better protect low-income communities of color from disproportionate impact of the health dangers of pollution.”
The council will also be charged with integrating environmental justice throughout the state’s programs, regulations, policies, and procedures.
Further, the council will monitor the environmental justice impacts of Virginia joining RGGI, said House of Delegates Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D), who filed the bill.
Virginia’s membership in RGGI, authorized in H.B. 981, makes it the first Southern state to join the coalition. Other states in the greenhouse gas trading marketplace are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
Critics have argued that RGGI doesn’t lower carbon emissions because member states end up importing fossil fuel energy from other states.
“When you get into RGGI, people generate less of their own power,” said Vince Brisini, former deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Waste, Air, Radiation, and Remediation. “RGGI does not drive renewables. RGGI does not save nuclear.”
Brisini surmised that Pennsylvania will end up importing natural gas and coal-based power from West Virginia and Ohio once the state joins RGGI—a process that Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has already begun.
But Herring said she wasn’t convinced that would happen in Virginia, partly because of another bill (H.B. 1664) that takes effect on Wednesday. That legislation is meant to kick-start up to 5,200 megawatts of offshore wind energy production in the Hampton Roads area of southern Virginia, with the potential to power 1.3 million homes.
“The impact of this bill is to incentivize renewables, to get people to look to other forms of energy,” Herring said. “And we’ve got to do something or nothing at all, so we decided to be bold.”
Flood Preparedness Fund
The RGGI bill also provides that 45% of the money generated from in-state carbon allowance auctions will be put into a community flood preparedness fund. That fund will make loans and grants to local governments for communities to use to protect themselves from flooding, prevent future flooding, or study flooding.
At least 25% of the money must be used in low-income areas, with priority given to projects that use nature-based solutions, such as reconnecting flood plains and rivers.
State programs such as Virginia’s could be helpful in mitigating flood risks because the National Flood Insurance Program remains in trouble. The Government Accountability Office warned Congress in a June report that the National Flood Insurance Program is at risk because premium rates don’t fully reflect the flood risk of insured properties.
“We’re not going to buy our way out of it by buying up the properties that are most at risk,” said Alicia Cackley, director of the GAO’s financial markets and community investment group. “That isn’t going to solve it.”
Sullivan sponsored another bill (H.B. 1526) taking effect on Wednesday that creates timelines for Dominion Energy Virginia and American Electric Power to retire their fossil fuel plants by 2045 and 2050, respectively.