The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats accuse Youngkin of sidestepping state law on environmental plan

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and Democrats in the General Assembly are locked in a power struggle over environmental policy, with both sides escalating over the past week toward a possible showdown in the next legislative session.

Sixty-one Democratic lawmakers wrote Youngkin on Thursday warning that his effort to use regulations to remove Virginia from an interstate carbon cap-and-trade compact is an improper end-run around state law.

That’s because Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — known as RGGI, or “reggie” — was mandated by a bill passed by the General Assembly in 2020 and signed into law by then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

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Only a change in the law, which would have to be passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, can extract Virginia from its commitment, said the letter sent by state Sen. Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. (D-Accomack) and signed by most Democrats in the Senate and House of Delegates.

“No proposed regulation, emergency regulation, regulatory act, or any subsequent administrative process can do so,” the lawmakers wrote.

Youngkin’s office on Friday took note that not every Democrat signed the letter — three senators and four delegates are not represented. “What this letter makes clear is that Democrats don’t have unified support for RGGI,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said via text message. “They clearly know the same thing we know — that RGGI is nothing more than an additional tax on household energy use for Virginia families.”

The Youngkin administration disclosed its latest plan for withdrawing from RGGI on Aug. 31, the follow-up to an executive order he issued shortly after taking office in January.

Youngkin and Republican leaders in the General Assembly have also signaled that they intend to nix another environmental measure passed by the legislature when Democrats were in charge: Virginia’s commitment to the state of California’s automobile emissions guidelines.

Their outcry was provoked after California adopted a standard late last month requiring that all new vehicles be electric or hydrogen-powered by 2035.

“We find ourselves today with this ludicrous law that Virginia has to follow California’s laws, and so we’re going to go to work and stop this because Virginians should be making decisions for Virginians,” Youngkin told Tucker Carlson Aug. 30 on Fox News.

Seventeen states have tied themselves, to some degree, to California’s emissions standards, which are allowed by federal law to be stricter than those of the federal government. The auto industry often responds to California standards rather than federal standards, because the state represents such a huge portion of the automobile market.

Ford Motor Co., for instance, is rapidly moving away from gasoline-powered vehicles and expects that as much as half of its worldwide sales will be electric vehicles by 2030.

Virginia is set to implement California’s emissions standards in 2024, but the state is already participating in RGGI.

That market, which includes 11 states, allows energy generators to buy and sell credits for carbon emissions, with the goal of reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Advocates note that states participating in the compact have seen reductions in greenhouse gas emissions while other states have stayed steady or seen an increase. According to an analysis of federal Environmental Protection Agency figures by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Virginia’s power plants emitted 13 percent less carbon in 2021, their first year as part of RGGI, than in 2020.

At the same time, the market returned roughly $400 million to Virginia for use in flood mitigation efforts and energy efficiency programs for low-income residents.

Youngkin has argued since before taking office, though, that RGGI is a bad deal for the state because utilities are allowed to charge consumers for the cost of participating. Customers of the state’s largest utility, Dominion Energy, paid an average of about $2.39 extra per month to cover the cost — though earlier this year Dominion notified the state that it would stop breaking out an additional charge for RGGI and would instead include the cost in customers’ base rate.

During a meeting of the State Air Pollution Control Board on Aug. 31, the Youngkin administration reiterated its opposition to the program and outlined a regulatory approach to withdrawing. Saying the system is increasing costs for consumers at a time when they’re already struggling with inflation, acting secretary of natural and historic resources Travis Voyles said the administration hopes to complete the administrative steps for withdrawal by the end of 2023.

Walton Shepherd of the Virginia NRDC said the fact that the administration has opted for such a slow process suggests that it knows it’s on shaky legal ground.

“This appears to be more a chest-thumping exercise than thinking they actually have chances of success in the long run,” Shepherd said. Advocates will be eager to go to court, he said, to challenge “a governor trying to overturn standing law.”

And he noted that Democrats who control the state Senate by a 21-19 margin are likely to block any attempt to change either the RGGI law or the California emissions plan.

It remains unclear what state Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R) thinks of the legality of the RGGI effort. Earlier this year, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that a member of the air board said she received “an opinion” from Miyares’s office saying the board can’t overturn an action of the General Assembly, such as RGGI.

Miyares has declined to make any such opinion public, and the Southern Environmental Law Center has filed suit on behalf of the advocacy group Appalachian Voices to obtain the document.

A spokeswoman for Miyares declined to comment on the matter Friday.

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