‘Historic’ Northam budget prioritizes Bay cleanup, clean energy and agency funding

Gov. Ralph Northam (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Dec. 11, 2018)

The Chesapeake Bay, clean energy and the Department of Environmental Quality are the big winners among environment and energy priorities in Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed 2020-22 budget. 

The proposal, unveiled by Northam in Virginia Beach Wednesday, would commit a ‘historic’ $733 million in new funding to a variety of environment and energy aims.

“Virginia is doing well economically, and we have a unique opportunity to invest in our shared future — that means taking bold action to protect our environment and combat climate change,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky in response to a question about where the new funding would come from.

Chief among the new funding is $400 million in investments to improve Chesapeake Bay water quality as the state draws near the 2025 cleanup deadline established by the Chesapeake Bay Program to meet pollution reduction targets. A statement from the governor’s office said the funding would prioritize the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, wastewater treatment, oyster reef restoration and technical assistance for farmers.

Clean energy also emerged as one of the governor’s key priorities. Northam pledged to commit Virginia to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade emissions market in which nine East Coast states participate, both by removing Republican-added budget language blocking the state’s membership and by proposing legislation to formally bring Virginia into the agreement. 

A “carbon rule” developed by DEQ to govern the state’s participation in the market went into effect this summer but has sat unused because of last year’s budget prohibitions.

New energy investments focused almost solely on offshore wind, with Northam pledging to create an Office of Offshore Wind and put $40 million toward upgrading the Portsmouth Marine Terminal to develop a supply chain for the industry. 

An additional $10 million would create a revolving loan fund for local renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.

Another notable chunk of spending — $25 million — would go to DEQ to “help the agency increase efficiency and responsiveness in permitting, enhance environmental protections, and improve public engagement.” 

That commitment is less than half of what DEQ Director David Paylor said in an August report has been cut from the agency’s budget over the past decade.

Of the total, $2.7 million will be earmarked for environmental justice and community outreach efforts in each year of the biennial budget. 

Northam further said he intended to propose legislation to create a permanent council on environmental justice. The present Virginia Council on Environmental Justice only has a mandate to serve one year and under Virginia law cannot remain in operation after the end of its current term unless legislation is passed establishing it permanently.

Environmental groups responded to the announcement with optimism.

“We’ve now got the framework for major environmental success in Virginia,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker. Nikki Rovner, associate state director of the Nature Conservancy in Virginia, praised the governor’s proposed “historic investment,” while Virginia Conservation Network Executive Director Mary Rafferty declared that the funding would help Virginia “remain a backstop to federal inaction and become a leader in natural resources protection.”