Continuing climate change fight, Virginia lawmakers commit to clean car standards

By: - February 19, 2021 6:00 pm

An electric vehicle charges at a public station in Henrico County, July 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

In their second year in control of the legislature, Virginia Democrats pushed through another major measure to combat climate change when the Senate on Friday voted to adopt California regulations that set stringent vehicle emissions standards and electric car sales targets.

“We know that our automobile emissions greatly contribute to our environmental problems,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. “It is incumbent upon us to start making changes.” 

The so-called clean car standards were a top-line environmental priority for House Democrats, who this session put forward a suite of bills intended to tackle transportation emissions, which are responsible for almost half of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

Preeminent within the package was House Bill 1965 from Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico. Bagby’s clean cars bill allows the State Air Pollution Control Board to adopt not only California’s low-emission vehicle standards, which are stricter than those imposed by the federal government, but also its zero-emission vehicle standards that set binding targets for electric vehicle sales as a proportion of all sales by manufacturers in the state. 

But while the proposal initially faced stiff headwinds in a legislature that has historically been deferential to business, it gained the support of Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, which has moved aggressively on decarbonization goals, as well as the endorsement of the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association. The organization’s CEO and president, Don Hall, became one of the bill’s most vocal champions, telling lawmakers on one panel that in the future they would be able to tell people, “I was there the day Virginia voted to truly become an electrification state.”

That “extraordinary leadership” helped ease the bill’s passage, said Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Deputy Director Chris Bast, who pointed out that the Virginia group is “the first auto dealer association in the country to advocate for the ZEV program.” 

Other negotiations, particularly the addition of a carbon-credit trading framework used in other states that have adopted the zero-emissions vehicle standards, chipped away resistance from the initially recalcitrant Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the largest representative of the U.S. auto industry. While still unenthusiastic about the proposal, the alliance eventually switched its stance to neutral.

Nevertheless, while the legislation passed the House on a 55-44 party-line vote, whether it could clear the more conservative Senate remained uncertain up until the moment it landed on the chamber floor early Friday afternoon. Democrats hold a narrow 21-18 majority in that chamber, and Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, had opposed the bill in committee, citing high-profile utility bankruptcies and reliability issues in California. 

The biggest challenge to the measure came Thursday, with the introduction of an amendment by Sen. Stephen Newman, R-Bedford, that would not only require the General Assembly to pass the bill a second time in 2022 but would require the legislature to approve any future updates of the emissions standards. 

The changes “would have effectively gutted the bill,” said Trip Pollard, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who was closely involved with the development of the legislation. 

“It was clearly an attempt to throw a wrench in the whole proceedings,” he said. 

Newman and other Republicans in the Senate railed against the prospect of tying Virginia’s transportation emissions standards to California’s.

“Electric cars are coming, but why would we hold California out as the divine standard when they’re experiencing a mass exodus of their citizens and their businesses?” asked Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, who cast the bill as a “draconian” policy. “Let Virginia lead in its own way. Let’s not follow California. They are not an example for the rest of the country and certainly not Virginia right now.” 

Democrats countered that when it comes to transportation emissions, there is no Virginia way. The federal Clean Air Act gives states two choices in setting such emissions standards: adopt those set by the federal government or adopt those set by California under a special waiver in the law. To date, 14 other states and Washington, D.C. have opted for the latter course, embracing either the LEV standard alone or both the LEV and ZEV standards. 

“We can’t cede state control by adopting clean car standards, because we don’t have any state-level oversight to cede at the moment,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. “Rather, with this bill we would claim our right under the Clean Air Act to adopt stronger state-based emissions standards as 14 other states have already done and three more are in the process of doing.” 

McClellan and others argued that by joining the group of states that have adopted the California standards, Virginia will be able to have a “seat at the table” in crafting future updates, and that the long federal review process will offer the legislature sufficient time to withdraw from its commitment if it doesn’t approve of future targets. 

Republicans remained unconvinced. Newman, who told the Senate that he owns a Tesla and enjoys driving it, called the move “a bad precedent.” And Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said the legislature shouldn’t “be imposing this kind of big government decision-making on families in Virginia, on businesses in Virginia.” 

“We should not be giving away the store to California or Northern Virginia,” he said. 

The warnings about California, which have surfaced frequently in energy policy discussions among Virginia lawmakers, prompted one Democratic senator to push back at the dire picture Republicans have painted.  

“For years at Halloween, I used to open the door and go, ‘Boo!’ at the kids when they’d knock on the door,” said Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax. “But now I’ve found something even more frightening. When they knock on the door, I open the door and I go, ‘California!’” 

The bill cleared the chamber on a 21-15 vote. The addition of amendments including the carbon credit framework will trigger the bill’s return to the House for its approval, but people involved in the bill’s development said they expected few roadblocks there.

Bast said the governor “looks forward to taking action on the bill in due course” and that the administration expects to move “pretty rapidly once this becomes law to adopt the regulations.” 

Environmental groups celebrated the Senate vote, with the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club noting that the legislation will make the commonwealth the first state in the Southeast to adopt clean car standards. 

“In 2020, and now 2021, Virginia’s General Assembly has taken leaps and bounds forward in tackling the climate crisis, first by working to secure our transition away from fossil fuels to power our daily lives and now by moving to reduce harmful tailpipe pollution by putting cleaner cars on the road,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “We are not across the finish line yet, but we’re close.” 

Hall, of the auto dealers association, said the legislation “positions Virginia as a leader in a global movement.” 

However, he cautioned, further investment in infrastructure and incentives will be necessary to carry out the transition to electric vehicles. 

Some of that work is already underway. A proposal to study the state’s existing charging infrastructure has been working through the legislature, as has a bill that would establish an EV incentive program. The latter, House Bill 1979 from Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, also cleared the Senate Friday and is expected to be the subject of ongoing negotiations to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions and secure additional funding beyond the $5 million House Democrats have earmarked for the program’s first year.

“Virginia’s already taken some important steps,” said Pollard. “But nothing like these steps.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing. She previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress, and her work has been twice honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Institute and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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