Senate bill to withdraw Virginia from carbon cap program voted down

By: - January 24, 2023 7:42 pm

Senate Bill 1001 from Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, was voted down on a party-line vote in the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

The lone Republican attempt of the 2023 General Assembly session to repeal a law allowing Virginia’s participation in a regional carbon cap and invest program was killed in a Senate committee Tuesday.

Senate Bill 1001 from Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, was voted down on a party-line vote in the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.

The legislation would have repealed the 2020 Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, which enabled Virginia to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate program that requires electricity producers to buy allowances for the carbon they emit. 

The proceeds from auctions of the allowances are returned to participating states. In Virginia, that has led to over $500 million being funneled to a fund dedicated to flood resilience efforts and programs devoted to low-income energy efficiency projects.

In a brief hearing on the bill, Stuart argued that the cost ratepayers foot for Virginia’s participation in RGGI isn’t fair. In Virginia, investor-owned utilities like Dominion are allowed to pass RGGI participation costs on to customers.

“I think it’s very unfair for the ratepayers to pay a tax that is merely an arbitrary inflation of their electric bill, cost of electricity, when there’s no conservation benefit,” Stuart said. He also voiced concern at the ability of utilities to purchase carbon allowances beyond set caps. 

But Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, who patroned the 2020 legislation in the Senate, said the program is “clearly working here,” pointing to a reduction in carbon emissions over a two-year period. 

“I think most people are willing to absorb that cost on a monthly basis if it’s doing a societal good,” Lewis said.

Prior to discontinuing the charge, Dominion added a rider to customer bills for RGGI costs that was roughly $2.39 per month for the average residential customer. 

Nate Benforado, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said RGGI’s diminishing cap on allowances available to power producers offers a pathway for utilities to transition away from fossil fuels, whose prices have soared over the past year because of global market pressures.

Chelsea Harnish, executive director of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council, said RGGI funding is allowing weatherization and energy efficiency upgrades in homes across the state from Wytheville to Virginia Beach.

Numerous other environmental groups including the Climate Cabinet Action Fund, Advanced Energy Economy, Appalachian Voices, Interfaith Power and Light, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Virginia Grassroots Coalition, Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, Wetlands Watch, Friends of the Rappahannock and the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP opposed the bill.

Only one person, Chesapeake resident Vic Nicholls, testified in favor of Stuart’s bill Tuesday, saying ratepayers don’t want to participate in RGGI.

Environmental groups praised the bill’s rejection following the vote Tuesday. 

“We are grateful to our champions in the Senate for doing the right thing for Virginians and climate action by rejecting this misguided repeal effort,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “But also know our work isn’t over – we have to continue to defend this program from the Youngkin administration’s ongoing attacks as they seek to override the legislative process and put polluters ahead of what’s best for our state.”  

The Youngkin administration is moving forward with plans to pull Virginia out of RGGI through the regulatory process, an effort state Democrats say requires legislation. 

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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.