House Republicans hit back at Democratic decarbonization laws

Bills to repeal RGGI and Clean Economy Act clear House but are unlikely to pass Senate

By: - February 16, 2022 11:00 am

Coal fired units at Dominion Energy’s Chesterfield Power Station would close by 2024 under the Clean Economy Act that passed the General Assembly in 2020. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

House Republicans voted to overturn or delay all three of Democrats’ marquee decarbonization laws, although the rollbacks are likely to be halted in the Senate in the coming weeks. 

The three bills to repeal the Virginia Clean Economy Act, withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and delay Virginia’s adoption of California vehicle emissions standards all cleared the House Tuesday afternoon on party-line votes just ahead of the crossover deadline, when each chamber is required to complete its own work. 

The “Repeal VCEA” bill from Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, was supported by every House Republican despite a statement by Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, on the first day of the session that the caucus intended to amend but not overturn the law. 

“We’re going to be making some amendments to the Virginia Clean Economy Act,” Kilgore said on Jan. 12. “Are we going to go with a wholesale rollback? I’d say not, but we are going to try to address some issues that could lower folks’ power rate.”

On Tuesday, Kilgore, who was the only House Republican to support the VCEA in 2020, said he had voted for Freitas’ “Repeal VCEA” measure to make sure a fellow caucus member’s bill cleared the chamber but indicated he didn’t expect it to survive the Senate. The caucus nevertheless identified the bill’s passage as a “legislative highlight” in a news release Tuesday afternoon.  

In committee and on the floor, Republicans have railed against the Democratic decarbonization laws, casting them as government overreach and arguing that clean energy advances need to be driven by the free market rather than mandates. 

Kilgore argued the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an 11-state carbon market that requires power producers to purchase carbon allowances at auction and then returns the proceeds to participating states, “limits our ability as Virginians to find free market solutions that actually work.” Freitas criticized what he describes as solar’s “dependence on large government subsidies in order to be profitable.” And Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, said if Virginia continues on its course to adopt California’s vehicle emissions standards by 2024, “the government is creating the marketplace rather than the marketplace creating itself.” 

Democrats meanwhile have defended the measures as not only critical to reducing emissions from the electric grid and transportation but also significant drivers of economic activity. 

The Virginia Clean Economy Act sets a 2050 target for the state’s two largest electric utilities to decarbonize, while RGGI aims to deter power producers — regulated or not — from using fuels that produce emissions. The California vehicle emissions standards are designed to decrease emissions from the transportation sector. 

“We’ve had jobs and businesses pouring into Virginia since we enacted the Virginia Clean Economy Act,” said Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, on the House floor Monday. “There are thousands of good-paying jobs now in Virginia that there weren’t just a few years ago in solar, in energy efficiency and wind.” 

Clean car standards 

While the Clean Economy Act became a minor campaign issue in the fall’s gubernatorial races and RGGI entered the spotlight thanks to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s pledge to pull Virginia out of the market, the California emissions standards have also provoked extensive debate in the House this session. 

In 2021, Democrats pushed through a law ordering the state to adopt California’s Advanced Clean Car standards, which not only set more stringent tailpipe emissions limits for light- and medium-duty cars and trucks but also set targets for electric vehicle sales. 

Under the federal Clean Air Act, states are forbidden from enacting unique vehicle emissions regulations. Either they can adopt federal standards or they can adopt California’s, a path 14 other states including Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware have opted to take. 

This session, Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, initially carried a bill that would have reversed Virginia’s embrace of the stricter standards. An amended version took a softer approach, pushing back the effective date of the new standards by five years and leaving their adoption to the discretion of the state’s air board. 

The Virginia Auto Dealers Association has been one of the strongest advocates for continuing on the current course toward the California standards, which aren’t slated to go into effect until 2024. 

Don Hall, president of the association, told members of a House subcommittee that Virginia dealers will continue to struggle with electric vehicle shortages if the state pulls back from its commitment to the California zero-emission vehicle standards, which require that a certain percentage of cars supplied by manufacturers to a state be electric. 

“Understand clearly: We will not get the cars to sell you. You will buy them in Maryland and other states because of not having [the California standards] in place,” said Hall. “That’s what guarantees we get the cars.” 

Republicans have remained skeptical of what they described as government intervention in the marketplace, and particularly California’s intention to prohibit the sale of new cars containing internal combustion engines by 2035. 

When it comes to electric vehicles, “consumers are driving the demand,” said Wilt earlier this month. “That’s nothing that a mandate from our government is going to fix. The free market’s going to drive that demand, and it already is.” 

On the House floor Monday, Wilt praised Virginia’s direction on renewables adoption, saying it was “being driven by the free market processes,” but said he thought failed Green New Deal legislation that would set a decarbonization deadline for Virginia’s electric grid of 2035 was “more doable than what this electric car thing and low-emissions and zero-emissions car deal is trying to put forward.” 

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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. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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