It is hard to miss the effects of climate change in much of coastal Virginia. Now the issue will get much more attention in the state's capital.
Democrats are emboldened after winning control of both chambers of Virginia's General Assembly for the first time in a generation. With their new power consolidated under Gov. Ralph Northam (D), leaders in the coal-rich bastion of the south are expected to pursue legislation to boost the use of renewable energy — and join neighbors across the East Coast in trying to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
Now Northam — who less than a year ago nearly resigned over a blackface scandal — has the chance to be Virginia's most consequential governor when it comes to addressing climate change.
His administration immediately said it wants climate change on the legislative agenda. “The people spoke yesterday," Northam said during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday in Richmond. "They really want us to continue to move forward with renewable energy."
State Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler added that "hopefully now with the new landscape we can work on some legislation.”
Rising seas are a serious issue across the state as far north as the eroding Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay and as far south as Virginia Beach, home of the East Coast’s fastest-rising sea level.
Becoming the first southern state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas (RGGI) Initiative has been an elusive goal for Northam since winning office in 2017 on a promise to take part in that interstate carbon cap-and-trade program. After Virginia regulators voted to join earlier this year, the Republican-controlled Virginia General Assembly rammed through language in the state budget that effectively prevented Virginia from participating.
With the General Assembly no longer in GOP hands, there's a fresh chance for Virginia chance to codify participation in the cap-and-trade program into law. If it does, Virginia could join New Mexico, New York and Washington in passing major climate legislation off of big Democratic gains in state races in 2018.
But there's no guarantee legislators will follow through. While Democrats will enjoy a relatively robust 54-to-43 margin in the House, there will be much less room for Democrats to defect in the Senate, where the party will only have a slim 21-to-19 majority.
“If there's going to be an issue, it'll be in the Senate,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University. He added that among Virginia Democrats “there's going to be an inclination to do something. The question is: How far?”
Environmental groups will try to push the Virginia Democrats they spent millions of dollars to elect as far as they can.
“We had a lot of candidates support RGGI,” said Lee Francis, deputy director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, which spent $1.5 million in the 2019 election. “We have a strong mandate to take action on climate change.”
But there is well-heeled opposition to RGGI regulations in the form of Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest electric utility and traditionally one of the state’ biggest political donors.
To curb that influence, millionaire Michael Bills gave around $1.44 million personally — plus an additional $250,000 through Clean Virginia Fund, his political action committee — to 76 candidates in Virginia who refused to take contributions from Dominion and other utility monopolies regulated by the General Assembly.
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.
— EPA watchdog accuses Wheeler’s chief of staff of “open defiance”: In a letter to EPA chief Andrew Wheeler, the agency’s Office of the Inspector General chided the administrator for not addressing his chief of staff’s failure to comply with investigations related to EPA officials obtaining early access to testimony meant for lawmakers. The letter details numerous times his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, declined to “fully cooperate and provide information to the IG, one during an audit and one during an administrative investigation.” “Auditors asked of him merely a brief email reply. Investigators requested to interview him. Both matters, after Mr. Jackson's repeated delays and refusals, were elevated, in writing, to you and/or other senior agency leaders in a final hope for cooperation with the OIG,” reads the letter from acting inspector general Charles Sheehan.
- EPA responds: In a statement, the agency said: “EPA has responded appropriately to the Office of Inspector General request for assistance as it relates to its Seven Day Letter. The Acting Inspector General’s decision to continue with the Seven Day Letter is troubling in light of the assistance the agency provided and undermines the cooperative and iterative relationship that EPA has shared with its OIG.”
— Six names added to the bipartisan Senate Climate Solutions Caucus: Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Angus King (I-Maine), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) are the latest members to join the caucus formed last month by Sens. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.). The caucus said it is looking to “craft and advance bipartisan solutions to address climate change.”
- First thing on the agenda: A meeting this past Tuesday with several major CEOs to discuss federal climate policy. Attendees included the top executives from the chemicals giants BASF and Dow, as well as the head of the World Resources Institute.
— High court hears arguments on limits of Clean Water Act: The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a high-stakes case to determine the boundaries of the federal water pollution law.
- What's at stake: During the arguments, the justices “searched for a standard of controlling pollution that travels through groundwater that would block regulated entities from evading the Clean Water Act while avoiding a significant expansion of the statute's federal permitting requirements,” E&E News reports.
- Arguments took wild turns at times: The Post’s Robert Barnes wrote that during the lively arguments, the court was asked “to draw lessons from grocery shopping and spiking a punch bowl, and reminded of an Agatha Christie novel where all the suspects are, in fact, guilty. At the end of an hour, all that was clear is that the stakes are high, and not only for the Hawaii wastewater treatment plant that says its practices do not violate federal law, and the environmental groups who claim it has ruined a coral reef off Maui.”
— Rick Perry wanted energy industry vets on board of Ukraine's state-owned energy company: Text messages released by House impeachment investigators reveal the energy secretary wanted to put two U.S. energy industry veterans on the board of Naftogaz, the Wall Street Journal reports. The June messages from Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, detail “how Mr. Perry and another Trump administration official were concerned leaders at state-owned Naftogaz weren’t pushing hard enough for free-market reforms. Mr. Perry believed Andriy Kobolyev, Naftogaz’s chief executive, wasn’t doing enough, Mr. Volker said in a text message to Bill Taylor, another American diplomat to Ukraine.”
- The timing is notable: “The exchange occurred at a time when President Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was asking for an investigation of another Ukrainian energy company and a board post it gave to Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden.”
- The messages contrast with Perry’s account: “Mr. Perry has denied reports that he had tried to get Ukrainian officials to put his associates or political donors onto the Naftogaz board or to oust current board member Amos Hochstein, an Obama administration diplomat who had worked closely with Joe Biden.”
— The story behind the head of Ukraine’s state-owned gas company: Andriy Kobolyev, the chief executive of Naftogaz, appears to have numerous enemies, The Post’s Jeanne Whalen reports. Ukraine’s former government tried to force him out earlier this year. In March, he came under attack by two Giuliani associates who wanted a new Naftogaz chief. Since he took the helm of the state-owned gas company, Kobolyev has been “shot at, pilloried on Ukrainian TV and bombarded with questions from the media about the Trump administration’s activities in Ukraine, which are now at the heart of an impeachment inquiry.”
- On the record: In an interview with The Post, Kobolyev “declined to comment on many recent events that have vaulted Naftogaz and Ukraine into the news” – he wouldn’t comment on why Giuliani’s associates tried to replace him or comment on Perry’s efforts to shake up the company’s supervisory board, Whalen adds.
— After leak, Keystone pipeline will be closed pending corrective efforts: The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an order for the Keystone pipeline to remain shuttered until its owner sends part of its pipeline to an independent lab for testing as part of an effort to determine what led to a 383,000-gallon leak. The pipeline’s owner, Alberta-based TC Energy, will also be required to “develop a plan to restart the line and for remediation,” the Associated Press reports. “TC Energy, formerly known as TransCanada, said in a statement it expects to have the damaged portion of the pipeline excavated by the end of the week.”