By Harrison Wallace
It is with utmost respect and appreciation for everyone in the Virginia Green New Deal movement that I am writing this today. We have seen a lot of confusion among supporters who are wondering why there were two big climate bills introduced in the Virginia legislative session this year, and wondering why we at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and CCAN Action Fund chose to prioritize the Virginia Clean Economy Act over the Virginia Green New Deal Act, which is seen — wrongly, we believe — as the weaker of the two climate bills. Today I’d like to set the record straight.
Last summer, heading into the fall, it was becoming clear that two policy options were emerging for this year’s legislative session. One would create Virginia’s first renewable electricity mandate. The other would be proposed by the Green New Deal Virginia coalition and would follow key principles laid out by the coalition, but the policy vehicle was unclear at that point.
Then Election Day happened. And Virginia, for the first time in history, elected a clean energy majority. The margins were closer than we may have liked, but we still had, for the first time ever, a roadmap to passing real climate action in the Commonwealth.
Virginia elected a clean energy majority. But what would we do with it? After Election Day, we had to make a decision. We would have to throw the majority of our weight behind one of the two potential policies. Here’s what went into our decision, and why we’re glad to support the Virginia Clean Economy Act (HB 1526, SB 851).
First: it became clear that what turned into the Virginia Clean Economy Act was moving whether or not we supported it. And, it looked like it was shaping up to be a very good bill. One of the major pillars of the bill was a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). Our Maryland CCAN office has had very good experiences with RPS policies, having passed strong renewable mandates in both Maryland (50% by 2030 with a pathway to 100% by 2040) and Washington, DC (100% by 2032). In both states, these policies have proven to quickly bring new wind and solar to our region, bringing new jobs and boosting the new clean energy economy.
The VCEA also focused decarbonizing what was already generating energy on Virginia’s grid. It was the only bill in the general assembly that called for the shutdown of all of Virginia’s fossil fuel power plants. This was also very important to us, because we knew that building renewables wasn’t enough to effectively act on climate, we needed to simultaneously remove the dirty power producers from the grid. The bill also had mandates for energy efficiency and distributed generation, paving the way for lower electricity bills and more jobs to flow into the commonwealth. The bill that passed both houses also has strong language around environmental justice, provisions that prioritize local workers for future offshore wind projects, and a new program to cap electricity bills for low-income Virginians. It is a comprehensive piece of energy legislation.
It was also clear the policy would need to improve, so we wanted to join the coalition to help improve it. We aimed to make it more aggressive and make sure that it included measures to address equity and justice.
And we did! What was introduced in January, and what made it through committee, and what passed out of both houses (and especially the bill passed by the full House of Delegates) are very strong bills. (The version that passed through the full Senate is less ambitious on energy efficiency, and is missing a couple other helpful amendments, but still very, very good). We still need to get the bill across the finish line and to Governor Northam’s desk, but we are confident that it will pass and feel proud of what we have accomplished.
Second: The Green New Deal Act, while strong in some ways, was not perfect. Far from it. It would need much more work to fully transform the energy economy.
The Green New Deal Act (HB 77) would require a renewable sales RPS. The RPS has a seemingly aggressive timetable of 100% renewable by 2036; however, the goals can be achieved simply by buying renewable energy certificates from other states. The bill included no requirements for Virginia to build renewable energy sources in-state, and simultaneously made no plan to shut down current fossil fuel plants. So the state could theoretically achieve its goals by not changing a single thing except to purchase more renewable electricity certificates from other states. Further, there were very weak ratepayer protections incorporated into this RPS.
The actual roadmap to act on the goals in the Green New Deal Act would be created by a climate action plan due in 2022. It directs the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) to develop a climate action plan “that addresses all aspects of climate change, including mitigation, adaptation, resilience, and assistance in the transition from current energy sources to clean renewable energy.” A public draft would be due in less than a year and the final plan would be due in early 2022. We’ve experienced this type of regulatory action to join Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), at a much smaller scale, with the Carbon Rule. Because a regulatory process like the one that the Green New Deal Act recommended would all but certainly take longer than expected, and it would be due during the term of a new Governor, we believed that we need to codify climate action that can begin this year.
The big benefit, of course, from the Green New Deal Act, and the piece that many people were rightfully excited about, would be a moratorium on new fossil fuels. With the slate of pipelines and gas plants being proposed in Virginia left and right, it feels necessary. But this would not have stopped interstate projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or current power plants, or forthcoming projects that have already received their permits. By comparison, the Virginia Clean Economy Act requires all fossil fuels to shut down by 2045, with much sooner shutdown dates for coal plants (starting in 2024) and biomass plants (2028). There are also multiple provisions within the VCEA that block the construction of new gas plants, including a ban on permits for such plants until 2022, with an option for regulators to permanently ban them. While we do admire the goal of a fossil fuel moratorium, the political landscape that we work in was not ready to accept that reality, so we had to get creative to make sure that we take substantive action on climate this year.
Third, and here’s the hard part: It became very clear very quickly that Virginia politicians were not ready for the Green New Deal Act. We came to this conclusion after many conversations with many legislators. It was clear this bill wouldn’t move in the House (and it didn’t, it died in committee). And a Senate version was never introduced. We are disappointed the Green New Deal Act barely got a chance.
Once session was underway, it was a fight to move the Virginia Clean Economy Act EVEN THOUGH the bill had strong support among leaders in the General Assembly. In the end, though, we were able to preserve a very strong bill and bring it to its likely passage.
We admire and appreciate the work of everyone in the Green New Deal movement. At the same time, we do not regret the decisions we made. For the first time in Virginia history, climate hawks were in the room with legislators when the final decisions were made. We kept the bill strong. And we will soon have a law that will jumpstart our clean energy economy and put us on the right track to a zero-carbon future. Let’s be clear, even after the VCEA passes, we’re not done fighting climate change in Virginia. The VCEA is Virginia’s first step on climate action, and CCAN will be back at it next year to push our leaders to do even more and decarbonize every aspect of our economy, but this is definitely the biggest first step I’ve ever seen.
We hope you’ll join us for the rest of the journey.
Want to read more about the Virginia Clean Economy Act?