Peter Galuszka is a freelance writer in Chesterfield, Va.
After more than a decade of prodding, Virginia was on the verge of making an important decision on climate change. It could join a regional cap and trade plan that could help it dramatically lower carbon dioxide emissions as nine Northeastern states, including Maryland, have.
Virginia would have been the first Southern state to enter the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which sets caps for carbon dioxide and breaks the pollutant into allotments, which are then bought and sold on a market. The cap would gradually decrease to specific goals. A similar concept worked brilliantly in the early 1990s to control nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide pollution, which caused acid rain.
But this month, Gov. Ralph Northam (D), battered by an unrelated political scandal, took a dive. He refused to veto a sticky ball of wax of a budget bill that the Republican legislature had set up in part to stymie the initiative. Republicans used the same ploy for years to avoid expanding Medicaid.
Fearful of a lengthy legal fight, Northam says it is better to wait until the November elections, which could give Democrats majorities in the General Assembly.
That’s a lame excuse, considering what Maryland and its partners have done with carbon cap and trade for years. It also shows just how backward Virginia’s carbon policy remains under Dominion Energy, the politically powerful utility.
When RGGI was proposed in the mid-2000s, Maryland was quick to give a thumbs-up. Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) supported joining, noting that climate change “is a real thing” and had to be addressed. Public polls were favorable, and Maryland joined.
In Virginia, meanwhile, Dominion dominated the narrative for a decade, claiming that RGGI would be intrusive and too expensive. Just a few months ago, the state still had not sorted out the numbers. The State Corporation Commission said joining the initiative would add up to $12 a month to ratepayer bills as utilities shut down or cleaned up fossil fuel plants. Northam’s office came up with a $1 a month extra cost. Green groups said it would be either a wash or net cost reduction.
Apparently, no one bothered to ask Maryland. According to Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment: “The program has not created any discernible increase in consumers’ monthly bills, as the savings from energy efficiency investments have offset any price increases.” In a decade, the group has cut carbon emissions in half, he said.
Predictions for Virginia promised similar benefits with a carbon dioxide cut of 30 percent in a decade. The Virginia Air Pollution Control Board certainly liked the figures. It voted to join RGGI in April.
When the issue came to Northam, he shied away. Dominion Energy was pleased. It stated that the initiative cost too much and that since 2005, the utility has achieved a 52 percent reduction in carbon emissions without it.
Environmentalists were enraged. Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said other states can proceed with positive climate regulations “because they don’t have a toxic anchor around their necks.”
Another factor, and a big conflict for Dominion, is that joining RGGI would be an existential threat to one of the utility’s plum projects. Dominion is the lead partner of a plan to build a 42-inch pipeline that would take natural gas from West Virginia through Virginia and on to North Carolina.
Opponents complain that it will destroy plants and wildlife, hurt property values, pose a safety hazard and contribute to climate change. It is also not clear who would use the gas or if the project is necessary.
Opposition is so stiff that a series of legal challenges has halted its construction at least temporarily. The delays have upped its price tag from about $6 billion to $7.5 billion or more. That apparently is giving Duke Energy, a North Carolina utility and a pipeline partner, cold feet. In March, Bloomberg News reported that Duke chief executive Lynn Good said that her utility might need to find a “Plan B” to ship gas if the Dominion-led project fails.
RGGI requires any electrical-generation facility of 25 megawatts of power or more to be subject to mandatory carbon cuts. That would include natural gas stations — exactly what Dominion is trying to promote with its pipeline. The initiative is a disincentive to “carbon-emitting fuel like fracked gas,” says Ivy Main, a lawyer who works with the Sierra Club.
As the dithering continues in Richmond, the threat of sea flooding in coastal Virginia increases. A study last year predicted that a Category 4 hurricane would inundate most of Hampton Roads. Parts of downtown Norfolk and the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, a key defense facility, would be underwater.