Virginia regulators vote to limit carbon emissions but face GOP roadblock


Virginia regulators vote to limit carbon emissions but face GOP roadblock

The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, shown above in Lebanon, is a 600-megawatt station said to be one of the cleanest coal-fired plants in the country. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post | By Gregory S. Schneider | April 19

 Virginia regulators have voted to join a regional carbon cap-and-trade program, becoming the first Southern state to do so. The effort could lead to a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from the state’s largest power plants.

But there’s a hitch.

Republican lawmakers put language into the state budget that effectively prevents Virginia from participating.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) could veto the language but must do so by a May 3 deadline.

Several environmental groups, which have supported Northam on conservation issues but have clashed with him on energy policy, turned up the pressure on him to act.

“Gov. Northam must now demonstrate leadership by vetoing the General Assembly’s procedural roadblock of the plan,” Walton Shepherd, Virginia policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said via email.

Northam’s office declined to say what he intends to do.

“The governor applauds the board’s action and is in the process of reviewing pending legislation, including the budget. He has until May 3rd to take final action,” Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said in a written statement.

Friday’s 5-to-2 vote by the State Air Pollution Control Board would put Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, a cap-and-trade program among nine other states in the northeast, including Maryland.

It puts limits on carbon emissions from the biggest power generators and sets up the trading of allowances on a market. Emitters that come below the cap can sell allowances to those who exceed it.

Republicans in the General Assembly argued this year that the system amounts to a tax on businesses. Del. Charles D. Poindexter (R-Franklin) sponsored a bill that prohibited the governor from entering into the regional program and gave authority for any such decision to the General Assembly.

That measure passed the legislature, but Northam vetoed it. He has said he supports the regional cap-and-trade initiative.

At the same time, though, Republicans put language into the budget that prohibits using any funds to join RGGI. Environmentalists argue that the governor has line-item veto power to strip the language out of the budget. But if he fails to act by May 3, the General Assembly would have to take up the matter in next year’s session.

On Friday, the air board structured its action so that it would go into effect as soon as the budget language is eliminated.

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