Republicans again attempt to roll back Democratic carbon reduction laws

Democrats say they will defend Clean Car standards, state’s participation in RGGI

By: - January 16, 2023 4:11 pm

Republicans in Virginia's General Assembly are again seeking to roll back Democratic laws tying Virginia vehicle emissions to California standards and allowing the state to participate in a regional carbon market. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

For a second year, Republicans are attempting to roll back sweeping Democratic legislation that tied Virginia to carbon emission reduction goals in the power and transportation sectors and created dedicated funding for flood resiliency and energy efficiency programs.

Seven Republicans, including Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, and Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, have introduced bills to repeal Virginia’s adoption of California’s “Clean Car” standards, which are on track to ban the sale of new gas vehicles starting in 2035. 

And Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, has introduced a bill repealing the 2020 law that authorized Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a regional cap-and-invest market that requires electricity producers to purchase allowances for the carbon they emit. Those proceeds are then funneled to state flood resilience and energy efficiency programs.

Republicans have argued  the private sector rather than regulation should drive demand for electric vehicles, while also raising cost concerns for car purchasers and electric consumers who they say will face steep prices as a result of the Clean Car standards and RGGI. 

“If we don’t act during this General Assembly session to repeal [the Clean Car standards], Virginia will remain a hostage to the extreme policies of California, and our citizens will pay the high price,” Newman said in a statement.

Stuart’s bill to withdraw Virginia from RGGI is in line with efforts by the Youngkin administration, which most recently has sought to pull Virginia out of the market through regulatory action, despite critics saying legislative action is needed.

Democrats in both chambers say they see no reason to reverse course on either vehicle emissions or RGGI and, with a 22-18 majority in the Senate, have the power to block Republican efforts if the caucus remains unified. 

“We’re not going back,” said Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William. “This is the future. We got to prepare Virginia for this future.” 

Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, said the party was firm in its resolve to block any legislation repealing RGGI participation. 

“It will never pass the Virginia Senate,” he said. “There are some things we are of one mind on, and I think RGGI participation is one of them.”

A second swing at Clean Car standards repeal

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has made repeated requests for Virginia to reverse course on the Clean Car standards, most recently saying in his State of the Commonwealth address that the stricter emission limits make Virginia beholden to another state’s regulations.

“The law of Virginia should be written by elected leaders here, not outsourced to radical bureaucrats in California,” Youngkin said.

Federal law, however, prohibits Virginia from writing its own regulations on tailpipe emissions. Under the Clean Air Act, Virginia must follow vehicle emissions standards set by either the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or California, which was granted an exception to adopt more stringent rules to address smog issues. 

Virginia’s 2021 Clean Cars legislation bound the state to vehicle emissions standards and electric vehicle sales targets set by the California Air Resources Board. Fourteen other states and Washington, D.C. have also adopted the California standards.

Under the California rules, emissions from new vehicles will be required to decrease more rapidly than federal standards require. An increasing proportion of the cars sold by manufacturers in Virginia will also need to be electric or another zero-emission technology. By 2026, for example, 35% of vehicles sold by manufacturers in Virginia must be zero-emission.

Because the Clean Car standards won’t take effect in Virginia until 2024 and won’t affect new cars earlier than the 2025 model year, the state will follow the EPA’s rule until then.

Wilt has argued the new standards create too strict requirements for Virginia to meet because of the toll vehicle electrification will take on the electric grid.

“I’m in on renewable energy,” Wilt said, but “it has to be done incrementally.”

Newman said electric vehicles remain unaffordable for most Virginians, pointing to data that they account for less than 1% of current vehicle registrations in the state. About 12% of new cars sold in California in 2021 were electric. 

“There are also serious concerns around the necessary supply chain to obtain and transport the materials and the battery necessary for the expansion of EV production,” Newman said. “The footprint of those resources and production still creates enormous greenhouse gases and many vehicles are transported from countries that don’t have protective environmental regulations like we have in the United States.”

But Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who lobbied in favor of linking Virginia to the California limits, said the California standards “will be good for our health, environment, consumer choice and the economy.” 

Environmental groups are pushing for the California standards to remain in place, noting that transportation is the single largest source of carbon pollution in Virginia. Much of that is from individual driving: 70% of carbon pollution from the transportation sector in the state comes from personal vehicles, according to the Virginia Conservation Network. And the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has said it supports the standards because nitrogen, a major source of pollution for the Bay watershed, is emitted from tailpipes. 

Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, who in 2020 was a chief patron of another major decarbonization law known as the Virginia Clean Economy Act, said Virginia’s adoption of the Clean Car standards positions it as a leader to receive electric vehicle models from car manufacturers that have committed to EV fleets. 

Manufacturers have prioritized shipping EVs to states linked to California’s standards as they see more of an opportunity to sell those vehicles there.

The priority manufacturers give to California standard states won the 2021 law the support of Virginia’s influential auto dealer industry. This summer, Don Hall, president of the Virginia Auto Dealer’s Association, said he didn’t “want to see Virginia’s dealers be left out in the cold and not have EVs available.” 

This year, however, VADA is staying neutral on Clean Cars legislation, said spokesperson Jeff Kelley. 

“Virginia will be able to accomplish this,” Sullivan said. “The EVs are coming — just watch TV for two hours.” 

With charging infrastructure unevenly developed around the state, Sullivan has introduced legislation alongside Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, to set up a special fund directed toward rural areas. A similar effort was made last year but failed to make it out of the appropriations committee. This year’s attempt would be in addition to the $100 million in federal funding the state is receiving to bolster charging infrastructure along highway corridors.

That infrastructure is a draw for Virginia tourism, said McPike, who noted electric vehicle drivers look for places to stop that have charging stations. 

The decreased reliance on gas will also create the energy independence from foreign countries that Republicans have said they support, McPike said. 

“We’re continuing to grow our economy. That’s always going to require electricity, so we’ve got to have the foresight to understand what it means to accommodate it,” said McPike. “I’d certainly take that [planning] over tailpipe fumes from a car every single day.”

And a second swing at repealing RGGI legislation

Republican arguments for withdrawing Virginia from RGGI focus on its cost to utility ratepayers. In Virginia, the electric utilities are allowed to pass on the costs of carbon allowances to customers. Dominion residential customers paid on average $2.39 extra per month for RGGI participation before the company suspended the charge in light of Youngkin’s announcement that he intends to withdraw Virginia from RGGI.

“A lot of people can’t afford that,” Stuart said. “I think it’s unfair to be charging citizens to pay for whatever programs these people want to pay for. That’s the bottom line. It’s not free revenue. You’re charging people on electric bills for this money.”

Del. Nadarius Clark, D-Portsmouth, speaks during a legislative rally Friday about his caucus’ defense of laws that address climate change.

Wilt said he wasn’t aware of proposals to repeal the RGGI law in the House of Delegates but echoed Stuart’s concerns.

RGGI costs are “ coming from the ratepayers,” he said.

Democratic Caucus Chair Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said participation in RGGI is a critical step toward addressing the impacts of climate change.

“Communities across Virginia are seeing the effects of climate change on their doorstep. Republicans would rather ignore the situation our planet is in,” Herring said. “We cannot step backward in combating the climate crises. We owe it to our constituents to act.”

Democrats have voiced particular concerns over the loss of state revenue generated from RGGI that would occur if the state withdraws from the market. To date, Virginia has collected about $235 million for flood resilience and over $250 million for energy efficiency and weatherization efforts from RGGI proceeds.

“If you view it as a tax, I think Virginians, given the issues that we’re facing with sea level rise … and these significant weather events across the state … I think Virginians would be happy to pay,” Lewis said.

One recent report from Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs found that if Virginia stayed in RGGI through 2030, improvements could be made to 100,000 to 130,000 low-income homes under the state’s energy efficiency programs. That could result in $68 to $82 million in customer bill savings per year, an average of $676 per year per household, researchers found. 

“The cheapest, cleanest energy is the energy never used. When buildings and homes use energy inefficiently, it creates excess demand, which leads to the need for more energy generation to be built,” said Lena Lewis, energy and climate policy manager at the Nature Conservancy. “New power plants are expensive and raise electricity rates for all ratepayers, which is why we all benefit from helping our neighbors use energy efficiently.”

Stuart said “the governor’s providing some” alternative revenues in the event Virginia does leave RGGI. 

In his budget proposal, Youngkin is requesting $200 million for a revolving loan fund that was created in 2022 and could go toward resilience projects. No state funding sources for the weatherization and energy efficiency programs were identified in his request.

That money, however, is “one-time funding,” Lewis said.

This story was updated to correctly identify a quote on repealing the Clean Car standards was from Sen. Steve Newman, R- Bedford.

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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics. Catch him in nature experiencing all the outdoors has to offer, and contact him at [email protected]

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