General Assembly commits to tabulating Virginia’s greenhouse gas emissions

Potomac River Generating Station/Mirant power plant
Coal stacks at the now-closed Potomac River Generating Station in Alexandria, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

With ambitious efforts underway to reduce carbon output from the power and transportation sectors, Virginia is preparing to figure out exactly how extensive the state’s greenhouse gas emissions are. 

This week, a bill from Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, that would allow the state Department of Environmental Quality to conduct a comprehensive inventory of greenhouse gas emissions cleared its final legislative hurdle when the House passed it on a nearly party-line vote. 

“Good policy requires good data and this legislation gives us the ability to get the data we need to craft good policy going forward,” said DEQ Deputy Director Chris Bast. 

After taking control of all three branches of state government in 2020 for the first time in a generation, Virginia Democrats have ushered in a sweeping program to address climate change, which scientists overwhelmingly agree is predominantly driven by human actions like the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. 

In 2020, Virginia became the first state in the South to set a goal of having a “net-zero carbon energy economy” by 2045, as well as the first to institute mandatory renewable energy targets for large electric utilities and join a carbon market, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. 

Democrats continued their carbon reductions efforts during the 2021 legislative session, committing Virginia to California transportation emissions standards and ordering the creation of a task force to examine carbon sequestration possibilities. Both of those laws will require the signature of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to go into effect by July 1. 

But while another 2020 law required the state’s energy plan to include an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, the Department of Environmental Quality lacked the authority to do so. 

Data on carbon and methane emissions from power plants and major sources of air pollution can be found in state and federal air permits, and officials can rely on widely used models to estimate emissions linked to transportation and agriculture. But information about emissions from smaller industrial polluters and building infrastructure that relies on natural gas and oil instead of electricity often isn’t readily available to the agency. 

“We’re very mindful of the fact that we don’t need to be drilling down too far in the weeds to get at every little thing, but we need the ability to evaluate what our actual emissions are,” DEQ Director David Paylor told lawmakers during one hearing.

The inventory would be updated every four years and included in an annual report by the State Air Pollution Control Board beginning in October 2022. 

If signed by Northam, DEQ spokesperson Gregory Bilyeu said the department would expect to begin developing regulations to collect the necessary data. 

Nate Benforado, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, called the proposal “a smart, common sense bill.”

“The biggest greenhouse gas sources are transportation and the power sector, but there are a lot of other sources out there,” he said. “It’s encouraging to see DEQ getting the tools it needs to gather comprehensive data so that we continue working on comprehensive solutions.”