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Democrats Are Using Their New Power To Change Virginia's Energy Future

Foreground Solar Panels with Background Wind Turbines
(Photo: Cornell Frühauf/CC BY 2.0)

Now that Democrats are in control of the General Assembly, they’re moving fast on issues like gun control and passing the Equal Rights Amendment.  But they also have a hefty energy and environment agenda. Sarah Vogelsong covers environmental issues for the Virginia Mercury, and she’s been following legislation at the State Capitol.

VPM's Whittney Evans discussed the trajectory of legislation with Vogelsang for our morning broadcast; this is a transcript of their talk.

Whittney: So, what’s the big picture plan for Democrats this year when it comes to environmental issues?

Sarah: I would actually call this an energy session more than an environment session. Although the Democrats are taking up bills in both areas. There’s a big push to reshape Virginia’s energy landscape that’s come out of this desire to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Some of these bills -- and there are literally dozens of them -- are bipartisan, but the majority are coming from Democrats looking to take advantage of their new majority.

Whittney: Let’s start with the proposal to enter into a regional initiative to reduce and cap carbon emissions.

Sarah: That proposal is for Virginia to join what’s called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Usually referred to as RGGI. RGGI is a coalition of states, mostly in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic that have banded together and agreed to cap their carbon emissions. Virginia came extremely close to joining RGGI last year but budget amendments introduced by Republicans at the last minute prevented the state from spending any money on joining RGGI and so effectively blocked it from going forward.  

This year, Democrats and a number of environmental groups are pushing to make RGGI a reality. And, for many people, this is really the big-ticket item that they want to see pushed across the finish line.

Whittney: Democrats are also making a commitment this year to create clean energy jobs and of course tackle climate change. As we know, Governor Northam set a goal of reducing carbon emissions. So Democrats have sweeping plans to move the state in that direction. What are these plans?

Sarah: First, as I said, it’s a little hard to narrow them down but the two biggest ones that I see are Virginia Clean Energy Economy Act and the Virginia Green New Deal. The Virginia Clean Economy Act is being put forward by a number of renewable groups. Big environmental players in Virginia. It is, I would say, a little bit less ambitious than the  Virginia Green New Deal. One of the facets of the Green New Deal that its supporters highlight that it would put a complete moratorium on fossil fuel development in Virginia. And that would include building any new natural gas plants.
 

Whittney: There are also plans to change the way Virginians buy their energy. What’s going on here?

Sarah: As I’m sure a lot of people are aware, the political influence of Dominion Energy was a very big topic of conversation in the campaigns running up to the November elections. There’s been a number of proposals to either diminish Dominion’s power in the energy sector or break it up entirely. Some are very narrowly targeted. They’re just trying to increase the choice that really large consumers like WalMart or Costco have when they are choosing who to purchase energy from. 

Whittney: So a big energy agenda. But there are a few proposals that specifically tackle environmental issues. What are they?

Sarah: There’s an interesting handful of topics that seem to be getting the General Assembly’s attention. Proposals to either ban or give localities the right to tax plastic bags. There’s a number of proposals that deal with sea-level rise and helping some of these coastal areas protect against that threat.