On eve of Clean Economy Act vote, a split emerges among Democrats

By: - February 10, 2020 7:23 pm

Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan, D-Fairfax, the patron of the House version of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, on the floor of the House Feb. 10, 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Clean Economy Act squeaked through its second reading in the House Monday, but a deepening split among Democrats over what the commonwealth’s policy should be when it comes to decarbonizing the energy sector may threaten its survival in a crucial vote Tuesday.

Hanging over the schism is the Virginia Green New Deal, a more aggressive plan to cut emissions which the House Appropriations Committee killed Friday by prohibiting it from being brought to a vote.

The Green New Deal’s chief patron, Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, have publicly pledged to vote no on the Clean Economy Act. The votes of another five Democrats are also reportedly in question — potentially enough to derail the bill in a chamber where Democrats hold a 55-45 majority and Republicans are expected to vote against the measure in a block.

In the Senate, the Democratic margin is much thinner, with only a two-seat edge over Republicans. A separate version of the legislation cleared committee Sunday and is before the full Senate. 

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Republican opposition to the measure in committee and on the floor has largely centered on the financial burden the bill will place on ratepayers and its impact on coal-dependent communities in Southwest Virginia, where employment in the industry has plummeted from more than 11,000 three decades ago to just shy of 3,000 in 2018. 

“What industry is going to replace our fossil fuel industry in Southwest Virginia?” Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, asked the House Monday. “We’re trying and we’ve kept trying to do that. But pulling a rug out from under us and closing down the (coal- and biomass-fired Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center) … is just a slap in the face.”

But the 11th-hour surge in opposition from some Democrats left scrambling Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration and VCEA supporters, which include environmental heavyweights like the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, the renewables industry and Virginia’s two electric monopolies. On Monday afternoon, members of the governor’s staff and other stakeholders could be seen huddled outside the House chamber doors trying to reach swing Democrats one by one to convince them to sign onto the legislation.

Floor amendments introduced by the Clean Economy Act’s chief patron, Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan, D-Fairfax, indicated the pressure the bill was under. Among them were apparent concessions to the Green New Deal faction, including provisions that would increase energy efficiency targets, raise the power purchase agreement cap from 500 to 1,000 megawatts and give local workers preference in the offshore wind buildout.

The 75-page omnibus bill has been the product of weeks of intense negotiation and, if passed, would usher in sweeping changes to the state’s energy portfolio, including major buildouts of wind and solar, expansions in distributed generation and a stronger focus on energy efficiency.

But its Democratic critics say the bill is fatally flawed, favoring Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company over ratepayers, sidestepping a necessary moratorium on fossil fuel construction and omitting crucial worker protections for a new clean energy economy.

“We’ve already missed our window for half-measures and small ideas,” Samirah told the chamber Monday. 

Perhaps the biggest sticking point for uncommitted Democrats is the moratorium issue, which Rasoul said “has to be a first step if we are truly going to appreciate the climate emergency we are facing.”

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, echoed that view, saying that pending plans by Dominion Energy to build new natural gas facilities necessitate an “explicit moratorium in the bill.”

Despite being a chief co-patron of the Clean Economy Act, Carroll Foy said she is undecided on the current bill because of changes that were made while the legislation was in committee.

Lawmakers, she said, need to “make sure we hold everyone’s feet to the fire.”

Asked if he thought he could pull together enough votes to pass the bill, Sullivan said he was hopeful ongoing amendments would produce enough support. “We’ll see what happens,” he said. “It seems to me the kind of bill House Democrats should be passing.”

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct the number of seats held by each party in the House of Delegates.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.