The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion On climate, Youngkin is no business leader

Neighbors help a stranded driver after her car got stuck after attempting to drive through high waters in Norfolk, Va., in August 2020. (Kristen Zeis/The Virginian-Pilot/AP)

Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Here’s the most shocking part of Glenn Youngkin’s shocking tenure as Virginia governor so far: He’s making a mockery of his reputation as a prudent business leader. Exhibit A is his apparent intention to erase tens of thousands of clean-energy jobs while making the state a “don’t go there” pariah for every Fortune 500 company rapidly greening its operations because of climate change.

Here’s the rule of thumb in state capitals: To really know what a governor values, look at his or her nominees to top posts. “Personnel is policy” is the old political saying.

So, the Republican Youngkin is a pro-coal, anti-clean-energy fanatic who openly wears the label of climate skeptic. That statement is confirmed by his nomination of Andrew Wheeler to the state’s top environmental job, a former coal-industry lobbyist and Trump administration bomb-thrower at the Environmental Protection Agency. Even before Senate Democrats in Richmond sank Wheeler’s nomination for obvious reasons, Youngkin was busy figuring out other legislative schemes to pull the state out of a popular cap-and-trade market to reduce climate pollution from power plants.

Most of Virginia’s largest companies — from Mars and Amazon in Northern Virginia to the good old boys at Dominion Energy in Richmond — have long since abandoned the “climate change is controversial” worldview that Youngkin seems to embrace. So what are these companies waiting for? They and other businesses must speak up loudly, calling out the absurdity of Youngkin’s climate agenda — from a business perspective. Indeed, absent responsible voices from the business community, it’s hard to see how the brakes get applied in a Republican Party whipped into an anti-science, anti-reason fury by a former president in South Florida.

Here’s the problem: Energy markets have changed faster than Republican ideology in Virginia. There was a time when the state’s GOP and the state’s biggest polluter — Dominion Energy — were perfectly aligned on the issues of climate change and clean energy. Coal and gas were cheaper than wind and solar and created more in-state jobs, so Dominion was all in on the dirty stuff. It was all about the bottom line.

Then, over the past three years or so, Dominion’s energy analysts confirmed that clean energy was becoming cheaper than fossil fuels and would probably stay that way forever. The company in 2020 committed to shutting down most of its coal plants by 2024 and its gas plants by 2045. Today, four times as many people work in the Virginia solar industry as coal, and Dominion is partnering with global giant Siemens Gamesa to launch an offshore wind industry that will create 5,200 jobs for Virginians. All the while, Dominion’s major data center clients in Northern Virginia and other national brand-name companies have begun asking for clean energy by name.

It’s simply a no-brainer for Dominion and most of its customers statewide: Dirty energy just no longer pencils out.

And then comes Youngkin. Few of us in the environmental community imagined a day when wind and solar would finally become price-competitive with fossil fuels and yet an entire U.S. political party would want to pay more for combustible energy. It’s more than just bad business, of course. It’s socially unconscionable. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that Youngkin is hellbent on leaving actually generated $228 million last year to protect coastal Virginia homes and businesses from sea-level rise. It also increases energy efficiency for low-income households statewide. Meanwhile, a new study predicts flooding costs in many Virginia counties will increase as much as 200 percent in coming years, especially in poorer communities.

There are plenty of morally controversial aspects to the current Republican fervor nationwide — mask mandate bans, abortion restrictions, voting rights restrictions. Perhaps, deep down, Youngkin agrees with his base that these are issues worth fighting for.

But fighting against clean energy? In a rapidly changing corporate America? Surely, this former co-chief executive of the Carlyle Group, this man who worked hard to create a net worth of half a billion dollars, can see that the “war on solar and wind” orientation that nominees such as Wheeler would bring to the state is just bad for everyone’s pocketbooks.

And if he can’t see it, the Virginia business community needs to provide him with a fresh pair of eyeglasses. Fast.

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