What’s at Stake in 2021 for Virginia Climate Policy

As the end of 2020 comes to a close, it is worth noting the historical changes that have happened in climate policy in Virginia this year. In the beginning of the year, the state passed a landmark piece of legislation with the Virginia Clean Economy Act, establishing clean energy standards and pledging to enter into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) before plummeting into economic downturn amidst the COVID-19 epidemic. 

The General Assembly met in the 2020 Special Legislative Session later this year, after the COVID-19 outbreak, to address the budget and other impending health and social issues. Notably, during this Special Session, Dominion Energy demonstrated their power and influence over the General Assembly in a key, yet controversial decision legislators made in its favor. As the year wraps up, the Governor and legislators prepare for the 2021 session, where environmental groups hope lawmakers will begin to tackle climate policy efforts within the transportation sector. 

How did we get here?

In 2019, Democrats flipped both houses of the legislature for the first time in 26 years. With Democrats holding the Governor’s Office, Senate, and the House, state legislators began proactively focusing on climate action for the very first time. In the 2020 General Assembly Session, the new and returning legislators devised and passed the first comprehensive legislation on climate action in March. 

The Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) marked the beginning of climate action in Virginia, a victory for climate advocates across the state and the region. The landmark passage of the bill reflects Democrats’ commitment to climate action.

Part of this bill allows for Virginia to join RGGI, making them the first southern state to join the program. The state is set to enter RGGI’s cap-and-trade based market on the first day of the new year. Now, lawmakers and Governor Ralph Northam will meet again in January to begin exploring other ways to attack the climate crisis amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocacy groups expect (or at least, hope) the Governor will tackle the transportation sector in the new year now that energy has been regulated under the VCEA.

Eliminating Dominion’s Influence 

Many Virginia Democrats, and even some Republicans, indicated their commitment to environmental and climate issues in the 2019 election by refusing campaign donations from Dominion Energy. 

Dominion Energy is the monopoly energy utility in the state — Dominion Energy Virginia serves 2.6 million people. Originally, the regulated monopoly of Virginia was Virginia Electric and Power Company (VEPCO). In 1983, Dominion absorbed VEPCO and officially became Virginia’s main source of power. 

“No single company even comes close to Dominion in terms of its wide-ranging influence and impact on Virginia politics and government,” stated Larry Sabato, professor and Director of UVA’s Center for Politics. 

Pressure to reduce this influence, driven largely by advocacy groups such as Clean Virginia, resulted in the first-time ever boycott of Dominion funds by state lawmakers in the last state-election. Among members of the Democratic Party that took the pledge to reject Dominion funds, thirteen candidates won, replacing Republican incumbents who had traditionally accepted Dominion donations. 

Notwithstanding this opposition, Dominion Energy still continues to heavily influence state politics and environmental policy. Despite many politicians’ refusal to accept Dominion funds, the public corporation spent more than it ever has before in the last election cycle: nearly $2 million in campaign contributions. 

While the Democratic Party of Virginia announced they would no longer accept Dominion donations in 2019, many Democratic individuals and groups still maintain their relationship with the corporation, welcoming the campaign contributions. Among these Democrats include Governor Ralph Northam, and Senator Dick Saslaw. 

Saslaw, a longtime Virginia state lawmaker and the Senate Majority Leader, is an incredibly influential force in the Virginia General Assembly. The Associated Press reported that Dominion Energy’s political action committee is Saslaw’s greatest campaign contributor, with the Energy and Policy Institute reporting Saslaw received over $400,000 in donations from Dominion. Senator Saslaw was ranked a C by Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter, the lowest grade given to a Democratic Senator as he opposed two environmental-forward bills (the Utility Cost Amortization Bill and the Fair Energy Bills Act) this year. 

What happened in the 2020 Special Session?

This year, the Virginia General Assembly met in a short, special session from August 18th to October 16th to modify the state’s budget due to COVID-19 constraints, and to address Virginians’ ongoing calls for social and criminal justice reforms amidst the Black Lives Matter movement. When legislators met to determine the fate of the Office of Natural Resources’ funds, they voted to maintain around the same level of funding as they had allotted in the beginning of 2020. 

To the relief of many environmental groups, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), lawmakers voted to maintain their commitment to funding environmental efforts such as the Chesapeake Blue Water Blueprint. Among the environmental commitments laid out in the special legislative session, CBF highlights the top four being: investing $50 million in sewage treatment, $50 million in the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, $18 million in oyster reef restoration, and $93 million in Virginia’s Agriculture Cost-Share program. 

To others’ dismay, legislators failed to increase the Department of Environmental Quality’s funds, which officials warn will hinder the federal agency’s capacity to carry out its duties. Legislators slightly decreased funds to the DEQ in the Special Session, despite Delegate Ken Plum admitting its been “stretched thin for years.” 

In January 2020, Governor Ralph Northam issued EO-29, establishing the Virginia Environmental Justice Council. This past spring, legislators voted to establish this council as a permanent body with 27 positions under the Secretary of Natural Resources, Matthew Strickler. With Virginia legislators previously prioritizing environmental justice efforts prior to the COVID-19 epidemic, members of the DEQ say it will be difficult to implement these legislative duties with such a tight budget. 

Prior to the 2020 Special Session, the Virginia Conservation Network, a network of over 150 environmental organizations in the state, released a budget priorities list. Among the proposed amendments supported was 380#1H, which would have granted an extra $200,000 from general funds to create an Environmental Justice Director. In the document, the VCN stated “We fear that, without a dedicated and funded position, the actual work of environmental justice, not just the rhetoric, will effectively halt.” Even so, the bill failed to pass in the budget. The COVID-19 epidemic has effectively put the climate crisis, once again, back on the backburner. 

Dominion maintaining its influence 

While climate policy could be summarized as maintaining small victories in the 2020 Special Session, members of the General Assembly demonstrated their loyalty to Dominion’s dollars with a controversial decision made in regard to the budget. During the session, to much of the chagrin of environmental groups and Virginia residents, members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee voted in opposition to the interests of the  Commonwealth, choosing instead to vote in line with Dominion’s interests.

A report released in August by the State Corporate Commission (SCC), the state agency in charge of reviewing the monopoly power, found that Dominion had overcharged Virginia residents by over $502.7 million since 2017. During the Special Session, members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee were responsible for deciding the course of action to resolve this issue. Despite it being an off-year for Virginia elections, Dominion uncharacteristically spent just as much as it does during election cycle years this year, focusing nearly one third of its overall funds to members within the House and Senate Appropriations committee

Members of this committee voted to allow Dominion Energy to keep all funds with no strings attached, against the recommendation of both the SCC and Attorney General, rather than return any of the funds to the utility debt relief fund. 

This comes to no surprise for some, with Dominion’s Director of Media Relations, David Botkins stating back in 2015 that “[he] could not name a piece of legislation in the past five years in which Dominion did not get what it wanted from the General Assembly.”

What will happen in the General Assembly Session in January 2021?

The legislature is scheduled to convene in the beginning of next year for the General Assembly Session, which will begin on January 13 and adjourn on February 27. In this shorter, off-year session, the Department of Environmental Quality is working with Governor Ralph Northam’s Administration to address the transportation sector’s contribution to climate change, and will likely leave out any further legislation on the energy sector. 

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, transportation was the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions out of any sector in the state. As a participant of the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI), Virginia has already dedicated itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. TCI has not yet been implemented, and the current pandemic has seriously delayed discussions on the program. However, the recent release of a TCI memorandum of understanding is a signal that the program is moving in the right direction, but more work still needs to be done.   

The Virginia Conservation Network (VCN) recommended the state legislature look at ways to decrease the driving of conventional cars to reduce transportation emissions. VCN and others recommend expanding the ability to use other means of transportation, such as walking or biking, and accelerating the transition to electric vehicles (EVs). Members of the DEQ have also pushed reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, and support policy options like these as well. With market trends revealing greater demands for electric-powered cars, investing or incentivizing EV’s would not be too radical. If the Governor addresses climate policy in the 2021 Session, a bill focused on transportation (such as legislating or investing in electric vehicles) will be the most likely option. 

What’s next for Virginia climate policy? 

With the Governor and legislature likely to address the transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions next year, very much is still unknown. The promise of COVID-19 vaccines getting distributed across the country in the next month makes it possible that climate change could become a top priority once again to state Democrats. 

However, it is likely that Dominion lobbyists will keep close watch on any proposed climate legislation. With Dominion reigning power and influence over Virginia politicians, it is unlikely the state legislature will pass any progressive legislation that could hurt them. 

Until legislation is drafted and passed on corporate influence in politics, Dominion and similar utility monopolies will continue to be a threat to American democracy and the best interest of the people.

Why hasn’t there been more change from municipalities?

Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means that the General Assembly must specifically grant authority to local municipalities if they wish to act or legislate on an issue. 

In the context of climate policy, this makes it very difficult for municipalities to regulate or enact legislation to mitigate or prevent the effects of climate change, leaving it up to the General Assembly to tackle all climate related issues. This makes the situation all the more difficult, because of the massive amount of power Dominion Energy has at the state level. 

How will the results of the Presidential Election impact Virginia’s climate policy? 

With the announcement on November 23rd of John Kerry to preside on Biden’s cabinet as the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, climate advocates are hopeful that climate goals and policies will be prioritized given Kerry’s past seriousness on the issue of climate change. While serving under President Obama as the Secretary of State, Kerry demonstrated his commitment to solving the climate crisis through his contribution in the Paris agreement negotiations under President Obama, which he signed in 2016. Biden’s selection of Kerry as Climate Envoy is reaffirmation to the public of the President-Elect’s promise to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. 

Kerry’s selection for this position will prove critical for national climate policy, but could possibly be made much stronger if the Senate ends up with a Democratic majority that Kerry will be able to work in conjunction with. The balance of the Senate will be determined by the two Georgia senate runoff races held on January 5th. These results will determine the strategy of Biden’s appeal in addressing climate change, and no matter the outcome, will pose a different set of challenges to whether the President-elect can succeed in appealing to a vast range of ideological views in Congress. 

In regards to executive action that can be taken, such as declaring a national emergency on the basis of climate change or mandating that energy efficiency targets are met, much remains unknown how seriously Biden will address the climate crisis. However, the President-elect will have the executive authority to take major steps to push executive orders if he deems necessary.

It is difficult to predict how effective Biden will be regarding climate given the current election still underway in Georgia. It is hard to determine how well executive agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be able to operate coming from Trump’s previous administration, where he effectively dismantled the agency and rolled back over 100 significant protections civil servants within the federal agency had established in the past few decades. 

It is still unclear what America will look like under a Biden presidency, especially in response to the climate crisis given the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this executive action could impact Virginia’s climate policy (as well as other states) and may be able to address corporate influence or renewable energy standards that could help ambitious climate policy go further than the VCEA. 

Featured Image: Photo by Mike Von via Unsplash