Dominion's power station in Chesterfield in Sept 2017.
Dominion Energy's coal-fired Chesterfield Power Station, shown in September of 2017, is the largest fossil-fuel power plant in Virginia. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Virginia’s State Air Pollution Control Board approved a handful of changes Monday to a sweeping proposed carbon rule that would cap the allowable amount of emissions from power plants starting in 2020 and enter into a multi-state market-based program to reduce emissions.

If approved — which could be next year after another round of public comment — Virginia would become the first state in the South to regulate carbon output through that program, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI.

Staff from the Department of Environmental Quality proposed a change Monday to lower the cap from 33 to 28 million tons of carbon output, while board members suggested amendments that clarify which entities the rule applies to and require staff to consider issues of environmental justice when the rule is implemented.

“It’s excellent for the environment and keeps the commonwealth moving forward in reducing carbon pollution,” said Michael Dowd, director of the DEQ’s air quality division.

That cap would decrease 3 percent each year until 2030.

Virginia’s proposed regulation will control carbon emissions from fossil-fuel power plants while keeping those in operation economically viable through RGGI, a network in which nine states buy and sell carbon allowances to help support renewable energy investments.

Under Virginia’s rule, power plants that run off of fossil fuels and generate more than 25 megawatts of power would purchase carbon allowances to be permitted to release a certain amount of the gas. Those plants would then consign those allowances to the RGGI auction to get revenue and use the RGGI network to purchase any additional allowances.

Moving the carbon cap lower shouldn’t be too challenging for power plants, Dowd said. DEQ did new modeling that found that because of investments in clean energy and energy efficiency coming online earlier than expected, the state’s carbon output would be about 28 million tons by 2020 without the cap.

“DEQ recommended this revision to the original proposal based on important information we gathered from our modeling that warrants serious consideration,” said DEQ Director David Paylor in a statement. “While not changing the nature of the proposal, this revision is a more aggressive approach to reducing carbon pollution.”

‘This process is not intended to end’

The most significant change from the board, according to Dowd, was proposed by board member Samuel Bleicher and says the state will continue to lower the carbon cap after 2030.

“I don’t think it gives industry the right signal — anyone the right signal — if they think we’re going to be done with carbon by 2030,” Bleicher said. “I just think it’s important for people not here and the world at-large to understand this process is not intended to end.”

Bleicher suggested an annual 840,000 ton reduction in emissions each year after 2030.

“Of course the board has 10 years to take some different action if they think it’s appropriate,” Bleicher said. “Ten years is not the end of the story.”

Dowd said he didn’t recommend the board make that change, since they want to join the RGGI network. The group likes to set standards across the board, he said, and it’s not clear yet what direction RGGI will take in 2030.

Board member Roy Hoagland also wanted to expand a staff addition that requires an environmental justice review. Hoagland wanted a provision that explicitly requires staff to reach out to low-income, minority and tribal communities that could be affected by the implementation of the carbon rule.

“I know participation in these communities is difficult … so I want to make sure we do a fair job of reaching out to them,” Hoagland said. “We have kicked the can down the road on environmental justice for years and years, and it’s time we start doing something about it.”

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Fund, a Maryland-based advocacy group that works on climate issues in the Chesapeake Bay region, said the changes to the rule make it stronger.

“This is a positive step forward that will lead to real reductions of carbon emission in Virginia,” said Harrison Wallace, group’s Virginia director. “With this re-proposed rule, Virginia will reduce carbon emissions from power plants in the state by 30 percent over the next decade, and continue reductions after 2030, which is exactly what we need.”