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Environment & Energy Report

Virginia’s New Democratic Majority to Make Environment a Priority

Nov. 7, 2019, 10:00 AM

Democratic control of Virginia’s Legislature could be a boon for clean energy and environmental policy in the Commonwealth but may prove challenging for power producers and gas pipeline proponents.

Democrats won full control of both houses of the Virginia General Assembly in the Nov. 5 election. In 2020, Democrats will control the main levers of government—the Legislature and governor’s mansion—for the first time in a quarter century.

Clean water, air, and energy emerged as top issues for voters, and will be among the majority’s priorities moving forward, said Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, leader of the House Democratic Caucus.

“I think we’ll need some time to put together our legislative agenda,” said the veteran lawmaker, who represents Fairfax County, outside of Washington. “We can’t do everything we want to in one year. We really have to think about it. We want to be bold moving forward, and I promise you, we will be.”

Environmental advocates say the shift could mean movement on a number of fronts, with potential bans on offshore drilling, increased focus on renewable energy like solar and offshore wind, and reductions in carbon emissions as the state battles the effects of climate change.

And it’s likely to solidify Virginia’s participation in a multistate carbon market called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), an action previously blocked by Republicans.

Climate Leadership

“Broadly speaking, it’s certainly a decisive victory in terms of the opportunity to take climate action,” said Walton Shepherd, senior adviser to the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, the environmental group’s political arm. Virginia could become a leader on climate among states, he said.

With a Democratic Legislature to back him, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) could have a more bullish agenda, said Kate Konschnik, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Northam in September issued an executive order calling for 30% of Virginia’s power to be generated by renewable energy sources by 2030 and for the state to use carbon-free power sources by 2050. It also calls for up to 2,500 megawatts of offshore wind.

Northam will “continue to prioritize efforts to reduce emissions and combat climate change,” Alena Yarmosky, the governor’s press secretary, said in a Nov. 6 email.

Virginia releases 104.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, ranking it 17th in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

If next year’s budget under the new Legislature enables the state to fully participate, the Commonwealth would likely take part in its first RGGI auction in 2021, Konschnik said.

“Virginia is a big energy producer, particularly compared to its northern neighbors with the notable exception of Pennsylvania,” she said. Virginia would enter RGGI with a budget of 28 million tons of carbon dioxide—more than one-third of the initiative’s total budget in 2018, before some adjustments for banked allowances, Konschnik said.

Power and Pipelines

Richmond-based Dominion Energy, the state’s primary power supplier, has said it accepts the governor’s challenge and already has made significant progress toward many of the goals set out in the plan.

“I would say the challenge just got real,” said Will Cleveland, a senior attorney with the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center. The state’s leadership changes will put more pressure on power producers like Dominion, particularly with natural gas pipelines.

Opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline had been expected to drive some voters to the polls.

The 600-mile Atlantic Coast project developed by Dominion, Duke Energy Corp., Piedmont Natural Gas, and Southern Company Gas, would cross West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.

“It is not possible for Dominion to both be 100% carbon free by 2050 and keep the pipeline operating,” Cleveland said, adding he hopes the state’s new majority will set energy efficiency standards, expand investments in solar and offshore winds, and get the state out of the fossil fuel industry.

Not much is left up to the state’s discretion in terms of pipelines, experts said, but a climate agenda at the state level could render the projects as stranded assets.

Sound energy policy isn’t a partisan issue, but the result of working with stakeholders on both sides of the aisle, Rayhan Daudani, a spokesman for Dominion Energy, said. Dominion looks “forward to working with the newly elected and returning legislators in the coming session.”

Miles Morin, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council, echoed Dominion’s sentiment. The U.S. natural gas and oil industry is “already driving emissions to generational lows made possible by the growing use of clean natural gas for power,” Morin said in an emailed statement.

—With assistance from Andrew M. Ballard.

To contact the reporter on this story: Keshia Clukey in Albany, N.Y. at kclukey@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com