A heron perches on rocks in the James River near Mayo's Island in Richmond. The river is one of many Virginia waterways that impact the Chesapeake Bay. (Sarah Vogelsong/The Virginia Mercury)

As if they didn’t have enough on their plates with energy legislation, lawmakers this session are set to consider a vast array of environmental bills, ranging from small fish (menhaden) to problems perplexing leaders worldwide (climate change).

What unified policies, if any, will emerge from this pastiche of concerns and proposals is largely unclear, as is the degree to which legislators may prioritize energy legislation over environmental issues. 

Even on issues like sea level rise and flooding, “there’s going to be a significant focus on green energy sources and reducing the carbon footprint,” said Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk. 

Nevertheless, a few themes have emerged on which legislators seem to be forming a consensus — or at least consistent enough positions for robust debate to occur. 

Transferring control over menhaden from legislators to regulators

On the heels of U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’ announcement that he will close Virginia’s menhaden fishery after its biggest harvester, Reedville-based Omega Protein Corp., declared it would exceed federal caps on fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, lawmakers have introduced a flood of bills designed to shift the way Virginia handles the small, oily fish.

Unlike all other fish, which are managed by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, menhaden have historically been governed by the General Assembly. Only a small handful of legislators, most prominently Republican Del. Barry Knight of Virginia Beach, have sought in prior years to bring the species under regulatory control. 

This year is looking to be different. As of Tuesday, delegates and senators had filed eight separate bills on menhaden, which is processed into meal and oil as part of what’s known as a “reduction fishery.”

“There’s been a fair amount of bills in the past but I think it’s starting to get a little energy now,” said Knight, who predicted the initiative has “a greater chance this year than it ever has before.” 

“This is the year that if the governor puts his weight and support behind it, he’ll get some Democrats to help us,” he said. 

Most of those bills, like Knight’s and those from Republican Sens. John Cosgrove and Bill DeSteph, would simply transfer management authority from the General Assembly to the VMRC, although the legislature would retain the power to review any proposed moratorium on the fishery. Others, like those from Democratic Del. Nancy Guy and Democratic Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, would transfer authority over the fish but not give the General Assembly moratorium review powers. 

And one, also from DeSteph, would prohibit menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay entirely.

Knight indicated that his main priority was not to shut down the fishery but to transfer control of it to scientists.

“Let’s have it science-based,” he said. “Let’s take the politics out of it. … I think that if science says there’s enough menhaden in the Bay to catch a particular amount of them, I’m fine with that.”

Reducing waste: plastic bags, polystyrene and balloons, oh my

Another issue clearly resonating with lawmakers this session: discouraging or outright prohibiting the use of non-biodegradable materials like plastic bags and polystyrene. 

The flurry of proposals put forward by legislators — there were about a dozen as of Wednesday — suggest a variety of frameworks for decreasing use of plastics and polystyrene. 

Because Virginia operates according to the Dillon rule mandating that no local government can exercise a power not explicitly granted it by the state, localities don’t have the right to decide individually to tax or ban certain products. In recognition of that, some of this session’s bills would give all localities the right to impose a five-cent tax on plastic bags, while others would offer that privilege only to localities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Still others, like Arlington Sen. Barbara’s Favola’s legislation, would let local governments ban the materials outright. 

A bird chews on a plastic bag in downtown Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Discrepancies also exist in who would get the revenue from such a tax. Some bills would send it back to the locality, others to the state Litter Control and Prevention Fund. Some would give a cent back to the grocery store or drugstore that issues the bag. 

Pretty much all of the proposals include exceptions for plastic bags used to carry things like meat, ice cream, prescriptions and dry cleaning, so even if the most stringent restrictions are passed into law, plastic bags don’t seem likely to disappear from the commonwealth entirely.

What might? Balloon releases. Proposals by Nancy Guy and Jennifer Kiggans would, respectively, prohibit “knowingly” releasing any balloon (wording that probably wouldn’t encompass a toddler accidentally letting go of the string) or reduce the number that can be released in an hour from 49 to one.

Alternatively, Democratic Del. Kenneth Plum of Fairfax is suggesting the creation of a Plastic Pollution Prevention Advisory Council to assess Virginia’s plastic problems on a comprehensive level and recommend a way forward.

Combating sea level rise

Several legislators expressed concerns that the exit of Republican Del. Chris Stolle, who lost his Virginia Beach seat to Democrat Nancy Guy in a tight race this November, might dampen the General Assembly’s fervor for addressing the threats of sea level rise and flooding.

“Chris Stolle who got defeated was a champion of that. And Chris Stolle is now gone,” said Lindsey. “It’s such a large broad issue, we’re not really sure what to do. We’re not going to keep the ground from sinking, and we’re not going to keep the water from rising. All we can do is mitigate it.”

The matter is of particular concern in Hampton Roads, which is experiencing the highest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast and is the second-largest U.S. population center at risk from the phenomenon, after New Orleans. 

This session, one vehicle lawmakers are looking to as a way to mitigate the threats associated with sea level rise is Virginia’s Shoreline Resiliency Fund, which was created in 2016 to provide assistance to localities that suffer from recurrent flooding. A rebrand is on the mind of the program’s original champion, Democratic Sen. Lynwood Lewis of the Eastern Shore, who wants to rename it the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund. That, he told the Joint Subcommittee on Coastal Flooding Monday, would “make clear what was always its intent, but was sometimes questioned, that it is designed to apply to all localities across Virginia that experience recurrent and repetitive flooding.”

living shoreline
Construction of the Fog Point Living Shoreline Breakwater on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Living shorelines, an element of green infrastructure, control erosion and can help act as a buffer against flooding. (Matt Whitbeck/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Lewis is also proposing to build new provisions into the statute to allow it to forgive the loans it makes. Other bills from Lindsey and Virginia Beach Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler (D) would transform the program from a loan-based effort to one disbursing grants.

Some of these concerns are theoretical: The Shoreline Resiliency Fund has so far gone unfunded. Lewis, however, on Monday, predicted that “there’s great support out there for the Shoreline Resiliency Fund and I think we’ve got some great opportunities this session to put some money in it.” 

Besides budgetary allocations, one funding route mentioned by Lewis and formally proposed by Democratic Del. Charniele Herring of Alexandria is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Legislators have offered numerous bills that would link Virginia to the cap-and-trade emissions market; Herring’s would not only take that step but direct that a portion of the auction proceeds go to the Resiliency Fund

Other related measures being put forward by Lindsey and Republican Del. Jason Miyares of Virginia Beach would bring Virginia into a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers program aimed at reducing hurricane and flooding risk while also forming the Virginia Hurricane and Flood Risk Reduction Authority to oversee protection of the state from storm and flood damage.

And on the rural Middle Peninsula, Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, said he intends to propose a handful of proposals to strengthen rural coastal resiliency. Among them is a measure that would give landowners coping with flooding challenges leeway to disturb the 100-foot Resource Protection Area buffer established by the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act as long as they could provide the state with a professional assessment that the disturbance wouldn’t harm water quality. 

Hodges and Lewis are also proposing to continue the work of the Joint Subcommittee on Coastal Flooding for an additional two years.

Slowing climate change

The General Assembly is showing some appetite to tackle the larger issue driving sea level rise: climate change. 

Gov. Ralph Northam earlier this week declared fighting climate change one of the 11 key points of the Democrats’ “Virginia 2020 Plan,” while in her first speech before the newly reconvened General Assembly Wednesday, Democratic House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn pledged that the House of Delegates “will address the threat that our climate change poses to the entire commonwealth, especially our coastal communities.”

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus also included in its session agenda a recognition of “the devastating impacts climate change has on our communities” and proposed a slate of reforms to address the issue.

Studies are one vehicle embraced by lawmakers to address that challenge. Henrico Del. Rodney Willett (D) has put forward a bill that would require all local and regional planning commissions to consider climate change when crafting zoning and comprehensive or strategic plans; on a state level, all agencies would have to examine how any new policy or regulation might impact climate change before implementing it. 

Another study, proposed by Chesapeake Sen. John Cosgrove (R), would look at how weather and climate-related events will affect coastal Virginia’s safety, quality of life and economy. Cosgrove’s measure specifically cites ongoing sea level rise of “approximately six inches in the last 26 years or about an inch every four years when adjusting for the effect of ground subsidence.”

And, while not a study, a bill by Democratic Del. Alfonso Lopez of Arlington would make it a policy of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality “to address climate change by developing and implementing policy and regulatory approaches to reducing climate pollution and promoting climate resilience in the Commonwealth and by ensuring that climate impacts and climate resilience are taken into account across all programs and permitting processes.”

Greening transportation

When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, RGGI has drawn most of the attention. But a handful of proposals and policies this session are also focusing on the contributions of the transportation sector, which in Virginia accounts for almost half of the state’s emissions.

One bill by Democratic Del. Elizabeth Guzman of Prince William would require all localities to include transit-oriented development in their comprehensive plans “for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” A resolution by Fairfax Sen. John Bell (D) would direct Virginia’s DEQ to study electric vehicles and create a Clean Transportation Plan. And under Roanoke Del. Sam Rasoul’s (D) Green New Deal, transportation would be one of the factors considered in a state Climate Action Plan.

Still to come? A verdict on Virginia’s participation in the Transportation and Climate Initiative, an effort to cut vehicle emissions through a regional cap-and-invest system similar to RGGI. Virginia joined the effort at the end of 2018, but no state will make a binding commitment to TCI until this spring. 

Northam last session vetoed a budget provision that would have barred Virginia from participating in TCI, but the governor’s office took a more cautious stance in December, saying that “no decisions have been made.” That statement came after a long-awaited draft memorandum of understanding was released by the coalition estimating that states that formally sign onto the initiative could see incremental increases in fuel prices in 2022 that are as low as 5 cents per gallon or as high as 22 cents per gallon depending on the cap chosen. How favorably lawmakers may react to the proposal now that numbers are beginning to be attached to it may depend in part on the success of the governor’s proposed gas tax.