Everything you need to know about VA’s biggest climate bills

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‘Twas the the week before crossover’

Working amongst the Virginia General Assembly is a whirlwind unlike anything that I have experienced before. For 60 ceaseless days legislators, lobbyists, and concerned citizens make their cases for or against thousands of pieces of legislation. As you can imagine, things can move rapidly.

Since January 10th, the Virginia Team at the CCAN Action Fund has been walking the halls of the Pocahontas building with the goal of making those 60 days as transformational for our climate as possible. One vehicle to accomplish this feat and move us towards the goal of a clean energy economy was the Virginia Alternative Energy and Coastal Protection Act (AECPA). The AECPA would direct Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI): a cap and trade program which would bring up to $200M to Virginia’s economy annually without increasing taxes, while also cutting carbon emissions by 30% by 2030. The program would also provide the first ever dedicated funding mechanism for sea level rise resilience, and provide millions of dollars in funding for critical rural programs such as Southwest Economic Development and Agricultural Best Management Projects.

In one of the biggest developments of the year, the promise of the AECPA led to Virginia’s new Governor, Ralph Northam, making it a top legislative priority. However, even with all of the momentum and clear statewide support, our strides towards RGGI came one vote short in Senate committee. This was after many great testimonies, and an amazing show of civic engagement through calls and emails from CCANers like you. Unfortunately, all of that effort and the tidal wave of new climate-conscious delegates who won in November, was not strong enough to send shockwaves through the legislature to cross party lines.

Moving forward

Last year’s announcement of the Carbon Rule will still direct Virginia to link with the RGGI program and cap emissions. However, regulations which are delivered from the governor’s office are unable to raise money for state use, resulting instead in the Carbon Rule being setup to give allowances to the polluters instead of being auctioned off for the benefit of the public. The CCAN Action Fund will continue to pressure regulators to produce a strong cap, and we will spend 2018 educating Virginians on the funds we are missing out on by not formally joining RGGI, which would allow us to access the nearly $2 billion in revenue. In 2019 we will bring the AECPA back with even more momentum and public support. The fight is not over on the AECPA and we took noticable strides towards reaching it this session!

Even though our signature legislation did not survive the General Assembly gauntlet this year, there are other important bills that you should be following and urging your representative to take action on!

Repeal of the rate freeze

By far, the most notable is the “repeal” of Dominions 2015 “rate freeze.” As you may be able to tell from my use of quotations, we at the CCAN Action Fund are skeptical of this legislation. The bill is meant to correct the huge problem from 2015 when Dominon was allowed to freeze their base rates in exchange for having the State Corporation Commission (SCC) not review their earnings. The result is an SCC estimate that Dominion is keeping $300 million – $700 million in overcharges that should be refunded to the people of Virginia, not including additional figures from 2017. The craziest part is that this is only an estimate, because without a full SCC audit we don’t know just how much money is really out there and should be refunded back to the ratepayers.

The new bills, SB 967 and HB 1558, attempt to fix the rate freeze gaffe of 2015 through the channels of refunding ratepayers $200M, large scale investments in energy efficiency, opening the door for large investments in renewables, and restoring a great deal of the SCC authority that was eroded in 2015. These bills, especially the investments in energy efficiency, are huge for Virginians’ electric bills and our climate. However, the bills also have provisions that may allow Dominion to write off its investments on ratepayers’ bills and possibly charge them twice: some have dubbed this as “double dipping.” The Attorney General’s Office testified in opposition to the bill because of this problem.

Because of the issue of “double dipping” and our commitment to the SCC doing a complete audit of Dominion’s profits during the “rate freeze,” CCAN Action Fund is not supporting these bills and urges you to call your legislators to ask them to oppose both until those items are addressed!

Coal Ash

There are some great bills that CCAN has been active in the discussions on, and that will be in the spotlight over the next week as they come up for a vote, and we urge you to support them.

Today, Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy’s bill (HB 182) will be heard in the Commerce and Labor special subcommittee #3. This legislation would close all coal ash ponds and mandate that they either be safely lined or that the coal ash be recycled.

There are many bills that would help Virginians who have been harmed by the legacy of this dirty fossil fuel. One is Senator Chase’s SB 708 which would close ash ponds. Senator Surrovell also has a few bills on coal ash, one of which would make testing of well water near new coal ash ponds mandatory (SB 765), and another which requires DEQ assistance to citizen water quality monitoring groups (SB 767), and finally one to ensure that utilities are unable to recover the costs of cleaning these coal ash ponds through increases in YOUR bills (SB 768).

Pipelines

This morning was not a good one in the House for pipeline bills that would ensure our water is clean and our property rights respected. However, we still have some bills in play in the Senate.

Senator Hanger has a bill in the Senate Finance committee tomorrow that would require tougher water quality standards for pipeline construction (SB 950), and Senator Deeds has two bills that have passed the Senate which allow the DEQ to inspect pipeline projects for water quality impacts and issue stop work orders (SB 698 & SB 699). Please call your representative and urge them to support Senator Hanger’s & Senator Deed’s bills.

Delegate Rasoul and Delegate Hurst as well as Senator Edwards also had great pipeline bills that did not make it out of their committees, so I encourage you to send them a “thank you” note.

Progress

We came into this General Assembly session with lofty goals. While the gridlock of past years is still very much alive in the building, there is a clear change in the atmosphere. This year, I did not have to spend much time asking you to call your legislator to urge him or her to kill horrible bills. Instead, this year I can point to concessions from corporate giants like Dominion, and this year I can say that the Governor supports CCAN’s top legislative priority! So, while things are definitely not perfect in Richmond, I think there is room for optimism in the capital of the Commonwealth.

However, let’s not settle for these incremental victories, if we continue to fight for progressive climate action then I am sure that these wins will serve as stepping stones towards monumental change in the years to come!