RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday vowed to use his executive power to limit carbon emissions, drawing immediate criticism not only from Republicans but from left-leaning environmentalists, too.
The Democratic governor signed an executive order to create a work group charged with coming up with recommendations for how the state can curb climate change but took no immediate steps to address the problem.
The move is an effort to circumvent Republican-backed budget language that blocks the administration from implementing federal Clean Power Plan regulations. A key part of the federal plan is on hold as the Supreme Court considers a legal challenge.
While Republicans panned McAuliffe’s action as executive overreach that they say is in the vein of President Obama, some environmental groups dismissed the announcement as “vague and uncertain.”
They say the governor’s support for two proposed natural-gas pipelines through Virginia and offshore drilling show he is not serious about reversing greenhouse-gas pollution or the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. But McAuliffe said the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines will bring about a jobs “renaissance.”
“We have to help areas like Southwest, Southside,” he said, referring to economically struggling Virginia regions. “They’ve lost textile, tobacco, coal, furniture. They have lost all of those manufacturing jobs.”
Although the natural gas will not be coaxed from Virginia deposits, opponents say it will encourage the development of drilling sites and could damage water quality.
McAuliffe disagreed, saying the projects can be built in an environmentally safe way that protects historic sites and natural resources. “People, they have the right to disagree,” he said. “We don’t agree on certain issues.”
With the order, McAuliffe risks alienating environmentalists just as his friend Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is working to endear herself to Virginia’s critical swing voters.
McAuliffe will be in Philadelphia at the Democratic National Convention in July when 60 state and national groups plan to protest his environmental policies by marching through downtown Richmond to the gates of the executive mansion — a strategy some of the same groups successfully deployed at the White House to encourage Obama to block the Keystone XL pipeline expansion.
“You’re seeing how the Keystone victory, the Keystone tactics, the Keystone spirit is now spreading to state fights against all these infrastructure projects,” said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. The network and three other groups in April issued a report card giving McAuliffe a D-plus on climate change and environmental policy.
“Until the governor stops supporting policies that make global-warming pollution much worse, he has no credibility when he proposes very small steps that might reduce pollution in uncertain ways in the future,” Tidwell said.
McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy, said the governor did not create the work group to assuage environmental groups but rather as a way to dodge the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Lawmakers this year adopted a budget that prohibits the administration from spending state dollars on a federal clean-air plan unless the U.S. Supreme Court lifts a stay it issued in March. About two dozen states are suing the federal government to kill the plan; Virginia is not among them.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) noted that McAuliffe has used executive action to attempt to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, to consider reinstating parole in Virginia, to ban guns in state buildings and to restore voting rights to felons.
The climate-change order “is another deliberate attempt to circumvent the legislature and the will of Virginia voters,” Howell said in a statement. “The governor is developing a troubling tendency to prefer Washington-style executive action instead of the dialogue and collaboration that Virginians expect and deserve.”
McAuliffe did earn praise from some environmental groups, including the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, Environment Virginia and the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, which are not participating in the July march. They called the work group a significant step toward curbing climate change.
Yet Kate Addleson, director of the state Sierra Club, said she would like to see McAuliffe commit to reducing total carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030 in line with the goals of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.
“We’re going to continue to challenge the governor to be more aggressive on some of the issues that we continue to be concerned about, like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and some of the other gas pipelines,” she said.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a proposal by Dominion Resources to build a 550-mile natural-gas pipeline through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. The project has encountered resistance from local organizations throughout the state and especially in the Shenandoah Valley.