Green Rollback May Hit Blue Wall

Green Rollback May Hit Blue Wall

Republican efforts to undo environmental laws to face opposition in Democratic-led Senate.

The goal of dumping fossil fuels by 2050 may be on the chopping block. The mandate that 8 percent of all new car sales must be zero-emission vehicles may be hitting a speed bump. And the Air Pollution Control Board might soon find itself without the ability to regulate air pollution. Plus a former coal lobbyist might end up leading the state's environmental agency. 

These are some of the environmental debates shaping up in the General Assembly this year as the new Republican majority is now in control of the House of Delegates.

"Some of them are really gunning for these laws," said Mike Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters "And we're going to have to do everything we can to defend them."

When the Democrats were in power, they passed a sweeping environmental law known as the Clean Economy Act that set a deadline to end carbon emissions from utilities by 2050. It was a major triumph for environmentalists, who praised the new law as putting Virginia ahead of most states. Now that law has become a target for Del. Nick Freitas (R-30), who has a bill that would repeal the Clean Economy Act. Environmentalists warn of the economic consequences to rolling back energy efficiency measures and efforts to develop renewable sources of energy.

"The average family in Dominion's service territory should save almost $34 a year," said Harry Godfrey, executive director at Virginia Advanced Energy Economy. "So rolling back the VCEA would do economic harm to those ratepayers."

THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL of the new governor's appointments to fill out his Cabinet is his choice for Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources, Andrew Wheeler. A former coal lobbyist and Senate staffer, Wheeler led the rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations when he led the Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump administration. Appearing before members of the General Assembly this week, Wheeler presented himself as a champion for reducing air pollution and cleaning up superfund sites.

“The governor believes that with my unique background of having run the EPA and working in a senior leadership position in the U.S. Senate that I know how to access federal funding and assistance to make a difference for the state,” said Wheeler in testimony to the Senate. "I have a long career in trying to bridge differences on these issues and protect the resources we all share."

Senate Democrats are hopeful they'll be able to deny Wheeler the nomination if it gets to the Senate floor, although they have no room for error. Democrats have a one-vote majority, so they'll need every member of the Senate Democratic Caucus to vote together. But when Wheeler appeared before the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-16) signaled he would be open to voting in favor of the nomination. That alarmed advocates who are concerned about Wheeler's past actions.

“Andrew Wheeler has a record of undermining science and environmental protections that are meant to keep people safe," said Tim Cywinski, communications manager for the Sierra Club of Virginia. "Virginia has made an awful lot of progress in environmental justice and climate action over the last two years, and Andrew Wheeler is a threat against the progress we’ve made.”

VIRGINIA IS CURRENTLY a member of a multi-state compact known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, although Republicans are hoping to force a divorce. Opponents of the initiative warn of higher power bills, and one estimate pegs that amount at $52 a year for the average customer. Ultimately, opponents say, participating in the initiative won't accomplish anything that wouldn't happen anyway considering recent trends in the energy sector.

“Power companies are moving in this direction anyway," said Stephen Haner, a senior fellow at the Thomas Jefferson Institute. "They are moving away from coal and they are reducing carbon emissions on their own. So I think it’s virtue signaling to try and basically say well we made them do it even though they are doing it anyway.”

Supporters of the initiative say it provides an important source of revenue. When power companies don't meet targets for reducing pollution, they have to pay. That money is currently funding energy efficiency programs for low-income families and coastal resiliency projects. Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order to review the commonwealth's participation in the initiative, ostensibly laying the groundwork to navigate a path for exiting the compact. Asked about how Virginia would fund coastal resiliency programs if Virginia leaves the initiative, Wheeler said he would find a way.

"I am committed to working with the legislature to make sure that we have the funding for that,” said Wheeler. “Coastal resiliency is very important.”

SENATE DEMOCRATS are hopeful they will serve as a "blue wall" to stop Republican efforts to roll back environmental laws that were approved when Democrats were in control. The Senate committee that would consider that legislation includes Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-9), who wrote the Clean Economy Act, and Sen. Lynwood Lewis (D-6), who wrote the bill that entered Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. As long as Democrats remain in control of that committee, Republicans will have a hard time accomplishing efforts to roll back laws from McClellan and Lewis.

"As the chairman of this committee, I'm very protective of their accomplishments," noted Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34), chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee