Did someone forward you this email? Maybe you’ve found it on the web? Here’s where you can subscribe for free!

Friday, Aug. 25, 2023

As promised, the Southern Environmental Law Center this week sued Virginia to stop it from withdrawing from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Virginia joined that 11-state partnership in 2021, during the Northam administration. The initiative’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capping the amount of carbon pollution that electric companies can emit. Basically, power companies have to buy permits for every ton of carbon they emit, and if they exceed their permitted amounts they are fined.

We wrote about the effect RGGI (pronounced “Reggie”) has had locally on Charlottesville and Albemarle County earlier this month. You can read more about that below:

Credit: Courtesy of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council

How Youngkin’s plan to withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative affects us

Now the legal argument about to be hashed out in court is different from the philosophical one that led Gov. Glenn Youngkin to pull Virginia from RGGI.

The legal debate is over whether Youngkin has the authority to pull Virginia from the partnership. The Southern Environmental Law Center is arguing he doesn’t. (You can read more about the argument in this Washington Post article.)

The State Air Pollution Control Board, a governor-appointed board that makes regulations to control air pollution, voted in June to withdraw from RGGI. A month later, Youngkin filed official notice to withdraw by Dec. 31.

The problem is, Virginia’s participation in RGGI is a state law. The House and Senate passed a bill instructing the State Air Pollution Control Board to join RGGI in 2020, and Gov. Northam signed it. The State Air Pollution Control Board cannot withdraw, the Southern Environmental Law Center argues.

The Youngkin administration’s response is very specific, and it’s all about the law’s wording: “The [State Air Pollution Control Board] Director is hereby authorized to establish, implement, and manage an auction program to sell allowances into a market-based trading program consistent with the RGGI program.” The key word there, the Youngkin administration has said, is “authorized.” The board is not required to be part of RGGI, the administration argues.

A screenshot shows text from a law.
A screenshot shows the section of Virginia law that the Youngkin administration says allows the State Air Pollution Control Board to withdraw from RGGI. Credit: Screenshot of Virginia Code

The State Air Pollution Control Board action was Youngkin’s third attempt to pull Virginia out of RGGI. He first tried to do it by executive order, but that didn’t stand. He then tried to get a bill passed through the state’s legislature, but the Democratic-controlled Senate voted it down.

That’s the legal battle. Youngkin wants to remove Virginia from RGGI because he says the program is a “hidden tax” on energy users and that doesn’t actually reduce carbon emissions. Energy companies are allowed to pass the cost of purchasing credits — and any fines for going over — onto rate payers. And Dominion Energy has done just that.

But, the program also funds local flood preparedness programs, building affordable, energy efficient housing projects and helps low income homeowners make home repairs. It’s unclear what will happen to these programs if Virginia withdraws.

RGGI was around for more than a decade before Virginia joined. And during that decade, a study by the environmental advocacy group Acadia Center showed that power plants in the nine states initially involved cut their emissions nearly in half. And according to the Southern Environmental Law Center’s suit, emissions from Virginia’s power plants dropped 16.8% in the two years we’ve been involved.

Youngkin administration officials said that figure is misleading. In order to provide power to customers without incurring RGGI fines, Virginia power companies are simply reducing their own power generation and buying it from non-RGGI states, they say.

Thanks for reading, everyone!

Jessie Higgins, managing editor

Our Sponsors

Want to sponsor our newsletter? Here’s how.

I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.