Gov. Ralph Northam
Gov. Ralph Northam announced a trio of initiatives Wednesday to combat carbon pollution and climate change. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration announced Wednesday that it would seek to regulate methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure and join a regional group of northeastern and mid-Atlantic states to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles as well as an alliance to fight ocean acidification.

“More than one third of all carbon pollution comes from transportation,” Northam’s office said in a statement. “In Virginia, transportation is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases, in addition to being a large source of nitrogen oxides and ozone pollution, which directly impact public health.”

The Transportation and Climate Initiative includes the same states that comprise the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a network of carbon trading states to reduce emissions from the power sector that Virginia is seeking to link to under a regulation currently being finalized.

“This effort will extend our collaboration from electric generation to transportation,” Northam’s office said. “TCI is a forum for exchanging ideas, sharing best management practices and collaborating on initiatives to reduce transportation’s carbon footprint.”

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will also be tasked with establishing a workgroup to develop regulations to curb methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure.

If developers get their way, two massive new natural gas projects, the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, will be built through Virginia.

A study published this summer in the journal Science puts the rate of methane emissions from domestic oil and gas operations at 2.3 percent of total production per year, 60 percent higher than the current estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency, The New York Times reported. That’s enough gas to fuel 10 million homes.

And while the increasing switch to natural gas by power plants has reduced carbon emissions, methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, meaning that leaks from pipelines can nullify the benefits of moving away from coal.

“I am committed to ensuring that Virginia is a leader in developing solutions to prevent the worst impacts of a warming climate and changing ocean chemistry, and doing more to reduce carbon pollution,” Northam said.

Northam’s administration is also committing Virginia to join the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification and to develop a “ocean acidification action plan.” Increased carbon in the atmosphere makes ocean waters more acidic, which can have major implications for shellfish, corals and other marine life.

“The twin threats of climate change and ocean acidification pose massive challenges for our economy and way of life in the commonwealth. We are already starting to feel some of those impacts and Gov. Northam and I are committed to collaborating with other states and countries in addressing them,” said Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler, who is attending the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this week.

Environmental groups, who have had a fraught relationship with Northam over his decision to reappoint David Paylor as DEQ director and his laissez-faire approach to the deeply divisive pipeline projects, cheered the moves.

“By addressing both our largest and most dangerous contributors to global warming and a growing threat to clean water, Northam is following through on a promise he made to Virginia voters to act on climate change and protect our public health and safety,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

The Southern Environmental Law Center said it looks “forward to working with the administration to ensure that the methane regulation is as strong and broadly applicable to natural gas infrastructure, both new and existing, as possible. We also look forward to working with the administration to pursue further steps to reduce tailpipe pollution.”

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.