Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday directed the state Department of Environmental Quality to begin assembling regulations to reduce carbon emissions from Virginia power plants.

The initiative was celebrated by environmentalists and renewable energy businesses that see the state as a laggard when it comes to solar and wind capacity and energy-efficiency programs.

The move by the Democratic governor, however, drew complaints of regulatory overreach from Virginia Republicans.

McAuliffe said in a statement: “The threat of climate change is real, and we have a shared responsibility to confront it. Once approved, this regulation will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the commonwealth’s power plants and give rise to the next generation of energy jobs. As the federal government abdicates its role on this important issue, it is critical for states to fill the void.”

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and is a driver of global warming, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Over the past several decades, the administration says, about 80 percent of human-induced CO2 emissions came from the burning of fossil fuels.

Though it does not lay out the 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 that environmental groups wanted, McAuliffe’s executive directive instructs the DEQ to develop a proposed regulation for the State Air Pollution Control Board to abate, control or limit carbon dioxide from power plants that will “allow for the use of market-based mechanisms and the trading of carbon dioxide allowances through a multistate trading program.”

The proposed regulation is due to be presented to the board by Dec. 31, just before McAuliffe leaves office.

Last summer, McAuliffe issued an executive order convening a working group consisting of Cabinet officials and leaders of the DEQ and the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to develop recommendations on cutting carbon from power plants. The market-based carbon-trading aspect was a key component of the group’s report.

Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility, has recently pointed to its own emission reductions, a push toward developing solar installations and acceptance of carbon regulation as “settled public policy.”

“Dominion has been preparing for carbon regulation for some time now and appreciates being a part of the stakeholder engagement process,” spokesman David Botkins said.

Appalachian Power Co. was prepared for the executive order, but representatives will review the details to determine how the regulations could affect the company and its customers in Southwest Virginia, spokesman John Shepelwich said.

While the company operates coal plants in West Virginia, Appalachian doesn’t have any in the commonwealth that could be subject to increased regulation under McAuliffe’s executive order. In Virginia, Appalachian operates two natural gas facilities in Russell County and six hydroelectric power plants, and the company has power purchase agreements to harness wind power.

Because Appalachian’s long-term planning already emphasizes growth in renewable energies, largely from wind and solar power, Shepelwich predicts the added regulations won’t have much impact on the company.

“We’ve got a good working relationship with his [McAuliffe’s] team and the DEQ so I expect us to certainly work with them,” Shepelwich said.

***

Environmental groups, which were some of the largest contributors to his 2013 campaign, hailed McAuliffe’s move as strong climate leadership in the face of President Donald Trump’s order in March directing the Environmental Protection Agency to review the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama’s signature regulation aimed at cutting emissions from power plants.

Trump’s order was seen as a death blow for the plan, which has been stalled in federal courts.

The Virginia Conservation Network, a consortium of more than 100 environmental groups, called McAuliffe’s directive “the largest step taken in the United States to tackle climate change since President Trump took office.”

Republican Party of Virginia spokesman David D’Onofrio called the carbon directive “the worst kind of virtue signaling.”

D’Onofrio criticized Obama’s Clean Power Plan as an expensive and ineffectual measure that he said would have reduced global temperatures by .015 of a degree while increasing electricity costs by billions.

“If reducing emissions for the entire country gets .015 degrees, how much less would a Virginia-only plan do?” D’Onofrio said. “Terry McAuliffe’s decision to ‘resist’ common-sense environmental policy will drive up prices for consumers, cost Virginians jobs and make it even more difficult to grow our economy.”

Environmentalists argued that the final Clean Power Plan was too soft on Virginia and that opponents greatly overstated the cost of compliance. Dominion filed a legal brief in support of the plan, saying that “effects on power plants and customers can be successfully managed” provided that the rule allowed market-based compliance measures, such as emissions trading, and allowed states to create flexible timelines.

***

The working group’s report, dated May 12, says climate change and an associated rise in sea level, which could increase by 5 feet in Virginia by the end of the century, pose “potentially devastating risk” to the state.

Virginia has seen a 33 percent increase in heavy rainstorms and snowstorms in the past 60 years and an 11 percent increase in precipitation from the largest storms, the report says. Climate change also poses threats to water supplies, agriculture, property and human health in the form of asthma and cardiovascular disease and increasing numbers of disease-spreading insects such as ticks and mosquitoes, it says.

Though carbon dioxide emissions from Virginia’s electric-generating units fell by 21 percent between 2005 and 2014, they still account for about 30 percent of the state’s overall CO2 emissions, according to the report, which also cited the economic potential of the clean energy sector.

In the past year, the number of solar jobs in Virginia has increased 65 percent, making Virginia’s solar job market the ninth-fastest growing in the nation, the working group says. The state is home to more than 75,000 energy-efficiency workers, and clean-energy business revenue in Virginia increased to $1.5 billion in 2016 from $300 million in 2014.

McAuliffe’s working group also recommended updating state building codes and convening an Environmental Justice Advisory Council “to ensure fair treatment and meaningful involvement by all people with respect to policy decisions that impact the environment and health of local communities,” among other findings.

Staff writer Carmen Forman contributed to this report.

Get the day's top stories delivered to your inbox with our email newsletter.

rzullo@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6453

Twitter: @rczullo

Recommended for you

Load comments