Virginia's recent environmental and climate laws have been heralded as among the nation's most progressive. In recent years, Virginia passed landmark laws supporting renewable energy and environmental justice and joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, priming it to address the challenges posed by growing flood risks, climate-related disasters, and industry-related public health crises.
However, Gov. Glenn Youngkin's election has shrouded Virginia's green future in gray.
Youngkin's campaign rhetoric on climate change ranged from hostile to ambitious. Despite some positive appraisals of renewable energy projects, his statements and early Cabinet nominations make clear that he opposes regulatory and legislative landmarks that support the state's climate resilience.
To start, Youngkin has repeatedly promised to repeal the bipartisan Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), which mandates a 100 percent decarbonized power grid by 2045. To achieve this ambitious goal, energy producers are required to meet emission reduction benchmarks and increase their investments in renewable energy. Producers who fail to do so must make "deficiency payments," which will be collected by Virginia's Department of Energy (DEQ) and distributed to overburdened, climate-threatened communities.
GOP Del. Todd Gilbert, the new Speaker of Virginia's state house, supports Youngkin's promise to repeal the VCEA. The Democratic majority in the state Senate will make that difficult, though that could change if Republicans take back the upper chamber in next year's elections. Additionally, Youngkin's nomination of pro-business Caren Merrick as the commonwealth's commerce secretary makes strict implementation of the law uncertain. If the VCEA is only loosely enforced, the renewable energy industry will remain underutilized despite immense need, and pollution will continue to produce ecological and public health disasters.
Undermining Emission Reduction Programs
Youngkin has also expressed interest in removing Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the regional cap-and-trade program that reduces emissions and energy costs for low-income households. Virginia joined the RGGI to meet its VCEA goals, and funds generated through RGGI are directed toward critical low-income energy efficiency programs and flood prevention.
While some suggest Youngkin is unable to overturn the legislation himself, the risk remains that his appointments over the next several years will undercut its preventative and restorative potential. Over the next three years, for example, Youngkin will appoint five of the seven members of DEQ's Air Pollution Control Board, offering him a powerful regulatory majority. Additionally, if the board's rulemaking authority is diminished through pending legislation, Youngkin can easily stave off rigorous emissions standards.
What's more, Youngkin recently nominated Andrew Wheeler to head up Virginia's Department of Natural and Historic Resources. As former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Wheeler advanced the Trump administration's deregulatory agenda, sidelined scientists, and packed the federal Air Pollution Control Board with industry sympathizers.
If confirmed, Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, will be able to deregulate coal emissions standards as he did at EPA — even as Virginia's coal production is on the rise. He would also oversee the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation, where he will shape the distribution of RGGI-generated flood prevention funds. Based on his track record, it's safe to assume Wheeler will favor the interests of big business and big polluters over communities.
Scaling Back Environmental Justice Protections
Wheeler would also have authority over massive preservation projects, including protection of 1 million acres of Virginia wetlands. That means Virginia wetlands may lose many protections, and surrounding communities will be at greater risk of weather-related disasters and flooding. Wheeler would also be in charge of massive coastal resiliency projects, which many fear he won't take seriously.
Another major concern: groundwater pollution caused by coal ash dump sites. After Wheeler undermined coal ash regulations at the federal level in 2018, Virginia passed a bipartisan bill mandating Dominion Energy to clean up of millions of cubic yards of coal ash. However, this cleanup is scheduled to occur over the next 15 years, giving Youngkin's administration the chance to delay or undercut more aggressive cleanup efforts.
Additionally, Virginia's Department of Energy has discussed recycling coal ash for critical mineral production, which many environmental groups see as simply replacing one problem with another. With Youngkin's pro-industry agenda and Cabinet, projects dedicated to removing contaminants and protecting the surrounding communities are at stake.
In short, Virginia's climate progress is at risk of being undercut and undone. Youngkin has signaled his desire to undermine regulatory protections and underutilize the financial supports for the communities most impacted by climate change and ecological degradation. While his tenure is still in its infancy, his early actions are alarming. Youngkin's pursuit of a "diverse energy portfolio" and his interest in protecting taxpayers and consumers seems to overlook many of the commonwealth's most pressing concerns. Some political and legislative hurdles may offer insulation from Youngkin's agenda, but these are only temporary.