Regional coalition outlines path to curb vehicle emissions in Virginia and 12 other jurisdictions

Evening rush hour traffic on I-66 westbound, as seen from eastbound lanes near Centreville, Virginia. (Creative Commons/Flickr)

From Maine to Virginia, carbon capping may be coming — this time for cars.

On Tuesday, the Transportation and Climate Initiative, an effort by 12 states and Washington, D.C. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, released a draft framework for a “cap and invest” system that would bring the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region’s carbon pollution down to a target level by 2032.

The framework, while not binding, is a prelude to a memorandum of understanding that is expected to be drafted by December and finalized by the spring. At that point, each jurisdiction involved in TCI would decide whether or not to formally commit to the market.

Virginia, where vehicle emissions make up about 46 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, became the southernmost participant in the coalition after signing on last November.

According to the draft framework, state fuel suppliers would be required to purchase emissions allowances through an auction, with the quantity of allowances decreasing over time. The proceeds of the sales would then be invested by each participating jurisdiction in programs to reduce carbon emissions or achieve “other policy goals — like improved air quality and more affordable access to transportation.”

No specific emissions targets have been formulated yet, TCI leaders said Tuesday in a media call, nor have potential impacts on gas prices been quantified.

On the same call, however, Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides contended that the draft framework “places the issue of equity front and center.”

About a fifth of the four-page document is devoted to a outlining a commitment to “the goals of equity, environmental justice, non-discrimination and meaningful public participation.”

Virginia’s efforts to join both TCI and the nine-state carbon-trading network known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative faced stiff opposition from Republicans in the General Assembly this spring, who succeeded in adding language to the budget prohibiting the spending of any funds on RGGI connection. While Gov. Ralph Northam declined to veto that budget language — a move that sparked sharp criticism from environmental groups — he did veto another bill that would have put the kibosh on TCI membership.

Republicans have made RGGI opposition a key issue in Virginia’s November elections, when all 140 General Assembly seats are up for grabs. A Sept. 12 release from House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox’s office sharply criticized RGGI for its potential impact on energy affordability, pointing to an analysis by the State Corporation Commission that found joining RGGI would raise a typical residential customer’s monthly bill by an average of $6.95.

The Department of Environmental Quality has disputed that estimate, claiming that bill impacts would be much lower.