In November 2019, for the first time since 1994, Virginia Democrats gained a majority in the state’s House and Senate, a partisan shift that put the state in a position to pass strong climate policy this session.
Passing any sort of climate policy in Virginia seemed like a grim prospect last year when Democratic Governor Ralph Northam allowed a provision in the budget to pass, which prohibits state funding from being “used to support membership or participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).” Virginia had been poised to join RGGI for years, and the passing of this provision was viewed as a huge setback. RGGI is a regional cap-and-invest program in the electric sector that includes ten Northeastern states, and has resulted in significant emission reductions since its launch in 2008.
Now that Democrats have a majority in both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly, joining RGGI is back on the table, along with passing sweeping emissions reduction legislation through the Clean Economy Act.
What is the Clean Economy Act?
On January 8th, House and Senate members unveiled the Clean Economy Act, which will put into law Gov. Northam’s pledge to eliminate utility emissions and transition the Virginian electric grid to 100% clean energy by 2050.
To do so, the bill creates the Clean Energy Standard, which escalates investments in energy efficiency, uses the RGGI price on emissions to increase the availability of wind and solar energy, and reduces carbon emissions through the next 30 years to reach net zero. These would be momentous accomplishments for a state that relies on coal as its principal source of energy.
The passage of this bill will reap huge benefits for both the economy and consumers alike. As carbon-based electricity decreases, the Clean Economy Act is expected to create up to 13,000 jobs per year, generate $69.7 billion in net benefits for Virginians, and invest heavily in renewable energy sources.
Ensuring Environmental Justice
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Clean Economy Act is its broad inclusion of environmental justice measures, done primarily through a commitment to invest 50% of the funding generated by RGGI auction proceeds towards energy efficiency for low-income housing. It also requires an Environmental Justice Review to occur annually, which would guarantee that low-income households are not burdened by the transition to a carbon-free economy.
This emphasis on an equitable transition is essential in ensuring the Clean Economy Act is both effective and fair. Electric bills in Virginia are currently the sixth highest in the country, which means that a disproportionate percentage of low-income paychecks are dedicated to electricity payments.
This is caused not only by expensive, coal-based electricity, but also by the monopoly Dominion Energy currently holds on energy production in Virginia, which results in inefficient energy production. The Clean Economy Act would force Dominion to be far more efficient in their production of energy, and would also transfer a lot of the energy market to cleaner, more equitable organizations. Without this clause in the Clean Economy Act, it has been estimated that $120 million of RGGI revenue would go directly to Dominion.
The Act also assures equity by protecting consumers against spikes in electricity bills, instructing that no residential bill will increase by more than 10% at a time. These types of increases are extremely harmful for low-income households.
Protecting environmental justice is paramount and should be ingrained deeply in any legislation to reduce our carbon dependency. The Clean Economy Act is specifically written to ensure its provisions do not disproportionately impact or harm those living on low- and moderate-incomes.
Policy for a cleaner future
For the first time in Virginia, passing the Clean Economy Act is politically feasible and will most likely occur in 2020. No other states in the Southeast have objectives to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector, and passing it would make a significant impact on regional climate policy.
This legislation comes at a crucial moment in history as policy to mitigate the effects of climate change becomes more and more urgent. The most recent IPCC report warns of the dangers global temperature increase above 1.5 degrees Celsius will have for our planet, highlighting just how important it will be for the Clean Economy Act, and other bills similar to it, to make progress in 2020.
However, no singular policy will be enough, including this one. Transportation is now the main emitting sector in the state of Virginia. Therefore, it will be essential that the Clean Economy Act is not viewed as the only climate policy needed this session, but that Virginia also continues its commitment to the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), which regulates the transportation sector in many Northeastern states in a similar manner to RGGI.
Although it will certainly be necessary to continue passing climate policy, the Clean Economy Act and Virginia’s pledge to join RGGI are a huge deal for a state that relies heavily on fossil fuels.