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The Climate Politics Almanac: Virginia's Climate Landscape

The challenge of cleaning up Dominion's act

Following parts one and two of the Almanac’s review of Virginia’s history, herein lies a non-exhaustive examination of Virginia’s climate and energy politics. This entry will be kept up to date on the Hill Heat website.

Climate Pollution

Electricity generation and energy distribution

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), Virginia currently generates about 10 percent of its electricity from clean, renewable sources. Roughly 60 percent of Virginia’s electricity comes from natural gas, and another 30 percent comes from nuclear power. 

Some of this natural gas is produced within Virginia, which is the country’s third largest source of coalbed methane. 

Virginia used to be a coal-powered state, but has switched to gas. As recently as 2003, over half of Virginia’s electricity generation was from coal combustion; this year, solar is on track to out-produce coal. Wind energy is not a meaningful part of Virginia’s production mix, although a large-scale offshore wind farm is under construction.

Fossil fuel infrastructure

Although coal-fired power has declined dramatically in Virginia, the EIA notes “the ports in Virginia's Norfolk Customs District processed about 35 percent of U.S. coal exports in 2019, making it the largest U.S. coal export center.” 

The EIA also points out that “the Plantation Pipeline, one of the nation's largest petroleum products pipelines with a capacity of 720,000 barrels per day, delivers refined  products throughout the Southeast before reaching its final delivery point in northern Virginia.”

Originally proposed in 2013, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was conceived as a 600-mile pipeline intended to deliver fracked natural gas from the southern portion of the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia through the heart of Virginia and to two of the dirtiest utilities in the country: Dominion in Virginia (more on Dominion below) and Duke Energy based in North Carolina. 

Strong opposition to the project throughout Virginia’s rural communities (including the historic Black community of Union Hill) sprouted legal challenges. Despite a 7-2 decision by the US Supreme Court in June 2020 finding that the US Forest Service had the power to issue permits even along the federally protected Appalachian Trail, Dominion and Duke announced in July 2020 that it wouldn’t pursue the project due to increased costs. 

Demonstrators block construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, July 20, 2019. Credit: FightingFox Photography

Another controversial fracking pipeline is the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 304-mile pipeline cutting through the southwestern corner of the state. Virginia regulators have mostly advanced the project, while the North Carolina Department of Environment Quality under the leadership of future EPA Administrator Michael Regan denied attempts to extend the project further south. Regan called the project “totally unnecessary,” and explained that “North Carolina’s clean energy future is not dependent on adding more natural gas infrastructure.”

Dominion Energy

Dominion Energy is Virginia’s largest utility, providing electricity to more than two-thirds of the commonwealth’s residents. Dominion is also arguably the most powerful political force in the state, as detailed in a 2017 series by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

From 1999 to 2007, a law was in place that sought to make Virginia’s energy generation market more competitive, but the 2007 passage of the Virginia Electric Utility Regulation Act essentially put an end to these efforts and shored up Dominion’s dominant position in the market. 

In 2015, the Republican-led legislature passed a bill freezing Dominion’s base utility rates for five years while also giving the utility a broad exemption from oversight by the State Corporation Commission (SCC).The bill, which was putatively passed to help Dominion cope with the expense of the Obama administration’s (never-implemented) Clean Power Plan, was signed into law by Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who met with Dominion’s CEO and secured concessions that allowed Dominion to raise rates to build a new solar facility. 

Impacts and Adaptation

Sea level rise and flooding

Virginia Beach, 2016. Credit: L. Todd Spencer

Sea level rise threatens coastal Virginia, especially in the low-lying military town of Hampton Roads, which is “second only to New Orleans in the largest population center at risk.” The cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach face the risk of sea level rise coinciding with occasional “king tides.” An injection of federal funds has supported stormwater infrastructure upgrades in the D.C. suburb of Alexandria, sorely needed after heavy rains there have caused regular flooding events.

Environmental Health and Air Quality

Richmond is one of the nation’s asthma capitals, in part because of extremely high pollen counts, which are continuing to rise with global warming. While Virginia’s coal-related pollution is declining, pollution from gas infrastructure has risen.

Rising automotive pollution spurred the signing of Clean Cars legislation in 2021.

Virginia’s cancer hot spots are caused by toxic industrial plants such as BAE Systems’ Radford Ammunition Plant, Sterilization Services in Richmond, and the Ashland chemical manufacturing plant in Hopewell.

Environmental justice organizations banded together in 2015 to form the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative In 2017 Governor Ralph Northam established an environmental justice advisory council, which in 2019 he promoted to the Virginia Council of Environmental Justice, with a membership of environmental justice leaders and academics. However, the council is unfunded.

Climate Action

Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA)

In February 2020, Governor Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) into law, which establishes a goal of reaching zero carbon emissions by 2045 and sets annual targets for clean energy generation along the way. A dramatically faster timeline toward pollution reduction can be found in the Virginia Green New Deal Act championed by Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke), and a slightly accelerated timeline was approved in early 2020 by the House of Delegates, but did not win support in the Senate.

The VCEA was strongly supported by the region’s most influential and well-funded climate advocacy organizations, particularly the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

Gov. Northam signs the VCEA into law.

Virginia’s major utilities supported the VCEA, which authorizes expansion of solar and energy storage projects, while controversially preserving the power of utilities to charge more from consumers when building offshore wind projects. The VCEA requires that by 2025, 75 percent of energy in the commonwealth must be produced within Virginia. It does not require immediate phase-out of new fossil fuel projects or infrastructure, although it does direct the Virginia Department of Natural Resources to explore prohibition of new fossil fuel infrastructure by 2022. The VCEA requires that natural gas plants must be eliminated by 2045. The VCEA also included a modest increase (from 1 to 6 percent) in the permissible amount of “net metering” for solar generation by households. 

Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)

Also in early 2020, the Legislature approved the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) and Sen. Lynwood Lewis (D-Accomac), which directed Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, pronounced “Reggie”)

In joining RGGI, Virginia counteracted a 2019 provision that Republicans included in the state budget barring participation in the multi-state cap-and-trade program for electric utility greenhouse pollution, which Governor Northam had declined to strike via a line-item veto. The 2019 budget provision delayed rules for joining RGGI that were originally developed in 2018 by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). After state legislators instructed the DEQ to finalize those regulations, Virginia officially joined RGGI on January 1, 2021; its membership in RGGI then survived a legal challenge from the Virginia Manufacturers Association.

Virginia Democrats Begin To Challenge Dominion’s Power

The 2015 “regulatory freeze” caused a populist anti-Dominion faction to emerge in Virginia politics. In 2016, grassroots activists formed Activate Virginia, which has since gotten hundreds of candidates (and dozens of winning ones) to pledge to refuse campaign contributions from Dominion

Challenging Dominion’s power was an important part of the anti-monopoly theme deployed in the gubernatorial campaign of former Rep. Tom Perriello in his 2017 race against Ralph Northam, who had supported the 2015 law and counted Dominion as one of his largest campaign contributors. Dominion was also a major issue in Yasmine Taeb’s 2019 primary challenge to Senator Dick Saslaw, who became Majority Leader when the Democrats gained control of the State Senate that fall. 

Perriello and Taeb’s unsuccessful primary campaigns notwithstanding, a crop of state legislators, led by “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) in the Senate and Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) in the House of Delegates, have sprouted up to challenge Dominion’s grip on power. 

During the first months of Governor Northam’s term in 2018, the state legislature approved the Grid Transformation and Security Act, a new law that allows Dominion to retain customer overcharges in order to pay for the development of renewable energy and grid modernization. 

Also in 2018, hedge fund millionaire Michael Bills and his wife Sonja Smith founded an organization inspired by Activate Virginia called Clean Virginia, which advocates for utility reform and supports legislators who pledge not to accept donations from Dominion. In February 2021, Clean Virginia supported a slate of legislation that would have strengthened the SCC’s power to regulate Dominion and reformed aspects of Dominion’s business model that allow it to pass on the costs of needed infrastructure upgrades to consumers, but the bills stalled in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee chaired by Saslaw.

In the 2021 elections, Clean Virginia became the subject of attack ads because of past donations to right-wing extremist state Senator Amanda Chase, who was censured by her colleagues after participating in the January 6 insurrection. Clean Virginia has since denounced Chase. Clean Virginia funded independent expenditures to support Del. Jennifer Carroll-Foy’s campaign for governor and Del. Rasoul’s campaign for lieutenant governor. In the June 2021 primaries, Carroll-Foy and Rasoul both lost to more centrist candidates, and Nadarius Clark’s victory in the Norfolk-based 79th House of Delegates district represented Clean Virginia’s only electoral win in those primary elections.

Over the weekend the Almanac will review the 2021 Virginia elections.

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