Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) ordered state officials Tuesday to create regulations that will reduce carbon emissions from power plants and emphasize clean energy sources such as solar, a plan similar to the federal policy that President Trump has threatened to rescind.
McAuliffe, hoping to have new rules in place before he leaves office in January 2018, said states cannot wait any longer for the federal government to act, especially when the sea-level rise predicted in coastal communities as a result of global warming is already threatening Hampton Roads. Half of Virginia’s inland counties face increased risk of water shortages in the next 30 years because of climate change, he said.
“I wish we had a national standard,” McAuliffe said after signing the directive at an event at Alexandria’s water treatment plant. “But Virginia cannot and will not stand idly by while the federal government abdicates its role.”
His action has the potential to alter the national dialogue on climate change, said Walton Shepherd, a senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This will be enough when other states follow Gov. McAuliffe’s lead and cut their carbon as well,” he said. A 2.5 percent reduction in carbon emissions annually over the next dozen years would result in a significant drop, he noted. “If other states get involved, that will drive significant enough changes to honor our international agreements.”
The Chesapeake Climate Action Network issued a report last year that gave McAuliffe a grade of D+ on carbon pollution and clean power. But its director, Mike Tidwell, on Tuesday called McAuliffe’s order “very compelling” and argued that McAuliffe should now drop his support for offshore drilling and gas pipelines from West Virginia.
“It looks like the governor, although very late in his administration, has pulled together a regulatory approach that could make a real difference,” Tidwell said. “This has the potential to be a really big deal.”
McAuliffe’s plan sparked immediate pushback from Republicans.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) called McAuliffe’s action “a broad assertion of regulatory authority, Washingtonesque in both its nature and scope. The governor is attempting to implement a failed national policy in the commonwealth that will further hamper economic growth at a time when we desperately need policies to get Virginia moving again.”
Howell said McAuliffe is ignoring the legislative process with his directive, and he will “take every action necessary” to ensure that major policy changes go through the General Assembly.
The chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia also denounced McAuliffe’s plan, saying in a statement that “the free market has led to significant year over year reduction in carbon emissions. Terry McAuliffe’s decision to ‘resist’ common sense environmental policy will drive up prices for consumers, cost Virginians jobs, and make it even more difficult to grow our economy.”
McAuliffe appeared Tuesday with business leaders, the head of the regional branch of the American Lung Association and a retired rear admiral, who testified to the importance of reducing greenhouse gases and preparing for the effects of the change that is underway. Solar energy firms now employ 3,236 people in the state, twice as many as coal companies employ.
Virginia’s secretary of commerce and trade, Todd P. Haymore, said companies that are considering moving to the commonwealth are increasingly asking about renewable sources of energy.
“As we recruit [businesses], it is always part of the deal,” he said. “We may talk about workforce and transportation and incentives, but our commitment to renewables is always asked about. Ten years ago, even five or six years ago, we didn’t really have that discussion.”
Also Tuesday, a new Pew Research Center poll found that 83 percent of Americans say increasing use of renewable energy is a top or important priority for the nation, and a majority think government regulations are necessary to ensure that goal.
McAuliffe and 11 other governors sent a letter two weeks ago to Trump urging him to honor the Paris climate agreement, which calls for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The Virginia governor said he will partner with those states to multiply the impact of the carbon cap and make sure the state is ready to allow organizations to trade their right to emit carbon.