Michael Town is executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
These words came from then-House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) in 2019 in response to Governor Northam’s decision to keep GOP language in the state budget preventing Virginia from fully joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Despite Cox’s and other Republicans’ best efforts, Virginia finalized its membership in the RGGI in 2020, and this highly successful multi-state carbon cap-and-invest program returned $228 million of revenue to the state in just our first year of participation – funding that’s going toward programs that protect flood-prone, frontline communities and that cut energy costs for low-income Virginians.
Just days ago, Republicans applauded Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s (R) announcement that he would single-handedly overturn a “legislative prerogative” by pulling Virginia out of the RGGI through executive order. Apparently, the constitutionally mandated separation of powers only applies to policies that they don’t like.
Not only does Youngkin lack the power to actually do what he claims he wants to do — this authority rests with the legislature and our State Air Pollution Control Board — but doing so would be foolhardy for a number of important reasons.
For starters, this program is making our air less toxic to breathe by cutting harmful power plant pollution. The public health benefits of the RGGI are well documented; since the program began in 2009, it has generated at least $5.7 billion of health savings through reductions in harmful emissions, especially particulate matter.
On the campaign trail, Youngkin said he didn’t know what causes climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are at the heart of this crisis, and the RGGI is helping Virginia address this major source of pollution while pushing us toward cleaner sources of energy to power our future.
The impacts of climate change are felt in a number of ways in Virginia — extreme rainfall, an increase in dangerous and destructive storms, record-breaking heatwaves — but nowhere is this crisis more apparent than along our coastline, which may explain why state Sen. Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. (D-Accomack) and Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria) — yes, Alexandria is affected by rising tidal waters — introduced the legislation that Youngkin wants to pretend he has the power to overturn.
Virginia’s recently released Coastal Resilience Master Plan paints a stark picture of coastal Virginia’s future, which is home to 70 percent of Virginia’s population. By 2080, 583,000 more Virginians will live in homes exposed to extreme coastal flooding, a 160 percent increase; the number of buildings exposed to extreme flood risk will increase by 150 percent, damages that will cost us $5.1 billion a year.
Adapting to the challenges along our coast won’t be cheap, and Virginia needs every tool at its disposal to protect the Virginians living in these vulnerable communities. Why, then, would we leave millions of dollars in annual funding on the table to aid in these efforts? It just doesn’t make sense.
It likewise doesn’t make sense to raise energy costs for low-income Virginians — those already experiencing a disproportionate energy burden — by eliminating a funding stream to cut energy usage and lower electric bills for these same households. The cheapest form of electricity is the energy we don’t use. Youngkin, a multimillionaire, may not struggle to pay a utility bills, but this is a reality for the many Virginians he’s ignoring in trying to roll back these important programs.
Virginia’s electricity rate structure is admittedly flawed, and there’s plenty of room to cut costs and return money to Virginia ratepayers through policies that, for example, expand competition or restore stronger regulatory oversight to the State Corporation Commission to set fair rates. There are plenty of ways to protect ratepayers without rolling back important progress to address climate change and expand clean energy, and if cost is truly at the heart of what Youngkin and Republicans are trying to do, then we’re all ears.
Over the past couple of years, Virginia has made leaps forward in addressing climate change, making up for lost time after years of climate denial and obstruction. Because of the progress we’ve made, including joining the RGGI, Virginia’s one of the fastest-growing states for clean energy, attracting investment in clean energy manufacturing and the good-paying jobs that come with it.
The RGGI has been an economic boon to its member states, growing this region’s economy by $4.3 billion through investments in clean energy and energy efficiency — investments that result in cleaner air and cheaper electric bills. The RGGI has shown that we can have clean air, a vibrant economy and affordable electricity, and as governor, Youngkin would be wise to stop pitting these against one another.