RICHMOND — A citizen board that regulates air pollution in Virginia voted Friday to enter a cooperative effort among states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Republican legislators are trying to block the move.
Groups including the Virginia League of Conservation Voters and Chesapeake Climate Action Network said the decision to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative would reduce pollution from power plants that use fossil fuels by 30 percent over the next decade. They called it a historic first step for Virginia to become the only southern state with such a regulation.
But Republicans in the legislature oppose the move, saying the regulations are like a tax and would hurt the state’s ability to attract new businesses.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed GOP legislation this year that would have prohibited Virginia from participating in the regional program without a vote of two-thirds of the General Assembly, so the legislature adopted language in the state budget to stop Virginia from joining.
Environmental groups have called on Northam to issue a line-item veto to take out that budget language, but the governor has not yet said how he intends to act. He has until May 3.
The State Air Pollution Control Board voted 5-2 to approve the regulations, a process that stemmed from a May 2017 directive by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
“The impact of linking to RGGI to electric rates is extremely small, and might actually result in lower rates than would occur if Virginia did not link to RGGI,” said Michael Dowd, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Air & Renewable Energy Division.
Joining would also bring health benefits to the state estimated to be worth between $6 million and $13.5 million a year from 2025 to 2030 because of the reduction in pollution, he said.
Dominion Energy has previously opposed the move, saying the emissions cap is too high and will result in an undue burden on electricity customers.
Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani said Friday that the utility will comply with whatever carbon plan the state adopts.
Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin County, told the air board the regulation was a way to get around the legislature’s desire that Virginia not join the program.
“How much is this really going to reduce CO2?” he said. “We have a reputation in Virginia of being very business-friendly. ... What will this do to the friendliness of Virginia?”
Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont are the states that already participate in the cap-and-trade program.
“We eliminated acid rain in our nation through the same pollution-reduction program that is before you today,” Walton Shepherd, a Virginia policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the air board. “The lights didn’t go out. The economy grew. And the acid rain crisis is now a distant memory.”
The regional program has been in place for a decade, supported by governors of both parties, and has cut pollution in participating states where economies are still growing, he said.
Five of the seven air board members voted for the regulation: Gail Bush, Roy Hoagland, Ignacia Moreno, Kajal Kapur and Nicole Rovner. Board Chairman Richard Langford and William Ferguson voted no.
“I’m a conservative. I’m kind of like Reagan. Government is the problem,” Langford said.
The meeting was the first for Bush and Kapur, who were appointed to the board under controversial circumstances by Northam last year, just days after the board delayed a vote on a natural gas compressor station in a historic African American area of Buckingham County.
Northam removed two board members and replaced them with Bush and Kapur, prompting an outcry from opponents of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which the compressor station would serve. Opponents said Northam was trying to ensure a favorable outcome for lead developer Dominion Energy.
Northam’s office has said the governor’s decision had nothing to do with the pending compressor station permit, but questions remain unanswered about Northam’s decision-making on the replacements.
In January, his spokeswoman, Ofirah Yheskel, would not allow the governor to be interviewed about the decision. And the governor’s press office on Friday did not answer specific questions about his decision-making.