Virginia Clean Economy Act passes, as debate reveals deep partisan and regional divides

By: - February 11, 2020 10:32 pm

Dominion’s Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County, Virginia, 2019. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

After a marathon day of deliberations, both chambers of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, an energy omnibus designed to get Virginia to zero-carbon emissions by 2050.

The late party-line vote in the Senate, taken more than 10 hours after it first convened Tuesday, followed a lengthy debate that saw simmering regional tensions boil over, with Republicans accusing Democratic supporters of the bill of leaving Southwest and Southside Virginia behind by driving up electric rates and forcing the closure of power plants like the predominantly coal-fired Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in St. Paul.

“What we’re doing is creating economic isolation of the rest of Virginia from the more affluent parts of the state,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin. “Industry will not come to our area because of these regulations.”

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“Northern Virginia is footing the bill for a large part of the state, and frankly I’m sick and tired of that being demagogued,” Senate Majority Leader Richard “Dick” Saslaw of Fairfax shot back shortly afterward.

The product of weeks of negotiations, the 75-page VCEA encompasses at least a dozen goals clean energy advocates have been pushing for several years, including a mandatory renewable portfolio standard, binding energy efficiency targets, beefed-up distributed generation and raised power purchase agreement caps. Its supporters have painted it as a measured path toward zero-carbon emissions by 2050, one backed by not only environment and industry groups but also utilities.

But since the final legislation was unveiled last week, it has been hampered by State Corporation Commission and Office of the Attorney General warnings that it will raise customer bills by at least $23 by 2027-30.

Supporters of the law, including its chief Senate patron, Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, have disputed the SCC’s cost analysis, but Republicans have seized on the estimates to argue that the VCEA will hurt ratepayers.

“This bill is going to hurt working Virginians,” promised Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. “It’s going to hurt poor Virginians.” 

Saslaw, however, dismissed the argument: “The SCC said that the average bill in 2030 would go up about $22. In other words, less than 2 percent a year. Woe is me,” he said before launching into a lengthy admonition of the cost complaints.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, addresses the chamber. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“We knew when we embarked on this a year or two ago that it wasn’t going to be free,” he said. “Can it be done for free? No, it can’t. It can’t. And yes, I feel bad for the people in Southwest Virginia, but contrary to what the president tries to tell these people, coal is not coming back.”

McClellan pointed to the measure’s binding energy efficiency targets as a key part of reducing electric bills but also insisted that the investments the legislation calls for are necessary to fight climate change.

“The cost of doing nothing is staggering,” she said. “Yes, this is a big bill, but it does some very important things that Virginia is far, far behind in doing. … Sometimes change is necessary to meet a greater good.”

Regional concerns also emerged in the House debate on the legislation earlier in the day, but with a more muted tone.

In a speech that prompted a standing ovation from his caucus, Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, said that Monday’s House discussion of the VCEA revealed “a general disregard for what’s going on in our part of the state.” 

“We have been absolutely hammered since the Great Recession, and we’ve never really pulled out of that,” he said.

O’Quinn also voiced skepticism about VCEA supporters’ promises that the law would create 13,000 green energy jobs annually, saying, “We will take those, if and when they materialize,” but “these are promises that have been made for a long time and have never, ever come to fruition.”

The bill’s chief House patron, Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan, D-Fairfax, pointed to a provision in the act that would require agencies to consider historically disadvantaged communities near coal mines in developing energy and job training programs as well as siting renewable energy facilities.

“As we prepare for what we know is coming, it seems to me the time to act is now and not wait until next year,” he said.

But while the debate in the House was less fiery than that in the Senate, its vote was more dramatic, given uncertainties about whether the chamber’s Democratic caucus would pull together enough support for the measure.

The 52-47 vote overcame fears that emerged Monday that six to seven Democrats planned to oppose the Clean Economy Act because of its failure to pursue the more aggressive emissions reductions strategies included in the now-dead Virginia Green New Deal. 

Despite the 11th-hour threat, only two Democrats — Dels. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke and Lee Carter of Manassas — ultimately voted against the measure. 

Del. Ibraheem Samirah of Fairfax did not cast a vote, saying in a statement that he abstained “because the legislation fails to rise to the level of
urgency needed to tackle the climate crisis.”  

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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.