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Democrats Continue Push For Environmental Reform

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Richmond's skyline as seen from across the James River. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Below is a lightly edited transcript of Patrick Larsen's conversation with Sarah Vogelsong

Democrats continued pushing a wide range of environmental and energy policies, after passing the Clean Economy Act last year. That puts Virginia on a path to carbon neutrality by 2045. 

Among other things, lawmakers tried to make electric vehicles more accessible, reign in major electric utilities, and institute new waste disposal programs - with mixed success.

Joining me virtually today is Sarah Vogelsong, environment and energy reporter at the Virginia Mercury.  Hi Sarah.

Sarah Vogelsong: Hi Patrick, glad to be here.

PL: So, Democrats and environmental groups spent a lot of time this session working on an electric vehicle program. What was the approach they took, and can we expect to see more EVs hitting the road soon?

SV: So, the overall goal here is to reduce transportation emissions, which account for about half of the state’s total carbon output. 

The biggest proposal of the bunch would bring clean car standards -- originating in California and adopted by 14 states, including Maryland -- to Virginia. Those standards aim to ensure cars emit fewer greenhouse gases, and set in-state sales targets for EVs. They won’t take effect until 2024 at the earliest.

Lawmakers also authorized a cash rebate for EV buyers -- but left the program unfunded. And they ordered a study of Virginia’s EV charging infrastructure, particularly gaps in rural areas.

So, yes, we can expect more EVs on the road as these things take effect. 

PL: Lawmakers have set the groundwork to send money to school districts to electrify their bus fleets - but clashed over whether Dominion Energy should be in the drivers’ seat on the program. Ultimately, the legislature didn’t approve the Dominion-run program. - but attempts from House Democrats to further empower the agency tasked with regulating Dominion also failed. Can you tell us more about that?

SV: Yeah, the Virginia legislature sets terms on how major electric utilities are regulated more than most other states. 

A growing number of lawmakers are saying they should be more hands off -- and introduced bills with bipartisan support to give power back to the State Corporation Commission. Similar measures were introduced last year with mixed success -- but all of this year’s proposals were shot down by the Senate.

Lawmakers did agree to reconvene a dormant commission to broadly assess how the regulatory system is working.

PL: Lawmakers also passed some bills that Chesapeake Bay advocates have lauded, including new restrictions on nutrient and balloon pollution, and a measure that will phase polystyrene containers out of restaurants by 2025. That bill, sponsored by Richmond Delegate Betsy Carr, was also central to conversations about waste management, and something called ‘advanced recycling.’ What can you tell us about this industry trying to take root in VA?

SV: Advanced recycling is a very new industry. 

It uses chemical processes on a commercial scale to return plastics to their building blocks -- which can then be used in new plastic goods and fuels.

A Senate bill this session classifies it as manufacturing rather than waste management - which raised concerns over state regulators’ oversight of the new industry.

Ultimately, lawmakers settled on what one called the “Great Polystyrene Compromise of 2021” - the Senate agreed to the polystyrene ban, and the House agreed to the advanced recycling bill.

PL: What other measures did lawmakers debate?

SV:  They decided to put together the state’s first comprehensive inventory of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, transportation, industry and buildings.

They also assembled a task force to look into capturing and storing carbon emissions in Virginia’s lands and waters.

Lawmakers codified a definition for ‘environmental justice’ last year, but rejected efforts to build and expand on it this session.

And a measure that would ban gold mining in the state was dropped in favor of studying the practice’s impacts.

PL: That’s Sarah Vogelsong. Her energy and environment coverage is online at VirginiaMercury.com. Thanks Sarah.

SV: Thank you Patrick!

PL: I’m Patrick Larsen and you’re listening to VPM News.