The Capitol at dusk. Lawmakers have sent legislation to Gov. Glenn Youngkin giving localities new powers to go after substandard housing. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
By Kate West
As a climate advocate in Virginia, the election of Gov. Glenn Youngkin was a disappointment of immeasurable proportions. For me and so many of my fellow Virginians, it was tragic that someone with some extreme policy positions is now at the helm of our state after years of great progress. Based on how Youngkin ran his campaign, though, how he is working to undo good policies for Virginia is not unexpected, even when constituents across party lines support them, as is true of reducing pollution. What is unexpected, however, is how our Democratic state legislators aren’t pulling out all the stops to, well, stop him.
Sure, we’ve seen some unified votes. And make no mistake, they are critical matters. Andrew Wheeler, for one. The Senate rejected his nomination as secretary of natural and historic resources, because he is ill-equipped to do the job he was nominated to do and dug the very hole he fell into. Wheeler sealed his own fate when he joined forces with Donald Trump and imposed some egregious environmental policies — a mess the Biden administration will likely spend their entire time in office untangling.
Wheeler’s rejection was a huge win, but concerning legislation still slipped through the Democratic firewall. Virginia’s progress on environmental justice took a hit after the Senate passed SB657, a direct attack on Virginia’s independent air and water boards that removes their authority to issue or deny permits, an important backstop against insider politics and tool for transparency.
Another bill, SB565, passed the Senate and allows gas companies to bill customers for construction of biogas infrastructure, opening up pig waste lagoons, landfills and wastewater plants as places where methane can be captured and put into pipelines, creating new dirty fuel infrastructure with no guarantee of methane emission reduction or required on-site management best practices.
Senate Democrats have been working diligently to stave off most of the bills that would have rolled back Virginia’s Clean Economy Act, Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and clean cars standards. But we remain in the heat of battle on all three of those initiatives, with the House voting in favor of rolling them back over the last week. It is now up to the senators to stand their ground and protect against the repeal of those laws that have such vital economic and environmental benefits for every person in Virginia.
These three laws — the Clean Economy Act, RGGI, and clean cars standards — are bedrocks of the progress Virginia residents have demanded. These three laws combined will bring billions of dollars of revenue and investment to Virginia. These three laws combined will create tens of thousands of career opportunities for Virginians, the kind of jobs that pay a good salary, reduce pollution and create sustainable economic development projects. These three laws combined will save Virginia’s communities and businesses money every year on electricity bills, with the weatherization provisions in RGGI particularly benefitting those struggling most to make ends meet. These three laws combined will dramatically reduce the pollution that is making people sick across the state, exacerbating asthma and other respiratory issues, heart disease, cancer and more. These three laws offer compelling, quantifiable benefits to every single Virginia taxpayer right where it counts – in our wallets and in our lungs. These three laws should not be difficult to defend.
The environmental community is one of the strongest, most persistent, most consistent arms of political progress and political activism in Virginia. We are passionate about our work to help protect people and property from the effects of climate change. We show up. We don’t just talk about climate change and environmental justice, we get out there and do the work. We partner across diverse constituencies. We conduct research and collect scientific data to support the need to reduce emissions that will help improve the lives of people in every region of the commonwealth. We leverage every ounce of legal capacity we can find to successfully fight off fossil fuel infrastructure that would irreversibly damage our landscapes and neighborhoods. We demonstrate humility and teamwork by gathering to build strong relationships in local communities and clean up our parks, streams and streets.
Hold the line. Virginia’s future depends on it.
Kate West is the director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter.
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