Climate activist Mollee Sullivan held a bright poster on Richmond’s Capitol Square condemning Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s decision to remove Virginia from a program supporting low-income communities impacted by climate change.
“In our neighborhood we have flooding, and it's only getting worse,” Sullivan, who lives in Chesterfield County, said. “I want to have a livable future for my kids.”
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, popularly known as RGGI, is a cap-and-invest program, in which 12 states on the East Coast agreed to limit and reduce carbon emissions over time. The program has auctioning allowances where power plants and other entities acquire allowances to legally emit a certain level of carbon dioxide within their state. The funds produced from those allowances serve as an investment to clean energy initiatives, such as renovating low-income homes to protect families from flash floods and record-breaking heat.
On January 15 2022, the day Youngkin was sworn in as governor, he signed an executive order to reevaluate Virginia’s participation in RGGI. The executive order proposed that the State Air Pollution Control Board, a regulatory agency within Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, have an emergency meeting to consider repealing the state from the program.
Youngkin’s executive order additionally stated the RGGI program is a financial burden on households and businesses. Customers relying on Dominion Energy, a power and energy company, were paying an extra $2.39 on their utility bills as an investment to the RGGI program, the executive order read.
“I feel 100% willing to support spending an extra few dollars a month so a family down the street can afford some energy efficiency renovations to their home,” Jeremy Hoffman, Director of Climate Justice and Impact at Groundwork USA, said. “I think that protecting any life that is threatened by these weather extremes is worth it.”
After the control board voted 4-3 to remove Virginia from RGGI on June 7 2023, Youngkin, a Republican, applauded the decision and stated in a press release that the program failed to reduce pollution.
Virginia was the first southern state to join RGGI in 2021 under Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat. Since participating in RGGI, the state decreased carbon emissions by approximately 17%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Markets Air Program Data.
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Virginia has approximately 154,000 low-income households under severe energy burden, in which homeowners spend over 10% of their income on heating, cooling and other utility costs, Associate Professor Damian Pitt at Virginia Commonwealth University said.
According to Pitt’s study, if Virginia remains in RGGI through 2030, $125 - $165 million per year can be invested into energy efficiency projects such as the Housing Innovations in Energy Efficiency program and support renovating low-income households, particularly in Virginia’s rural areas.
“Without RGGI, we're essentially gonna cut energy assistance programs funding by half,” Pitt said.
An overwhelming majority of Virginians warned Youngkin in public comments that they were against his executive order.
“We would hope, as true conservatives, to set an example for others by protecting the environment within the borders of the commonwealth,” S.B Preston wrote in a public comment. “We trust that you would do so, as a conservative, by proudly announcing your support for remaining in RGGI.”
Youngkin’s decision led environmental organizations Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, Third Act Virginia and Virginia League of Conservation Voters to organize protests across Virginia, including Richmond.
Roughly 30 climate activists stood united in a straight line outside of Richmond’s Capitol Square as Lee Williams, a retired nurse, skipped on the side of the road, leading the crowd with chants. Councilmember Katherine Jordan of the 2nd Voter District and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney were also at the protest in support.
Richmond protestors called out the benefits of RGGI and confronted Youngkin, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality and Air Pollution Control Board’s unauthorized actions to repeal RGGI.
RGGI was passed as part of the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act by Virginia’s then Democratic controlled General Assembly. The legislation requires the DEQ and the Air Pollution Control Board to go through the General Assembly to repeal any aspect of it, including RGGI, said Nate Berforado, senior attorney for Southern Environmental Law Center.
“The [Youngkin] administration disagrees, and we are gonna have to sort this out in court,” Berforado said.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a petition on July 31 challenging DEQ’s Air Pollution Control Board’s authority to repeal RGGI. The center argued in the petition that the agency’s actions violate Virginia’s Constitution by invalidating the General Assembly’s legislative power. The petition was filed on behalf of the Association of Energy Conservation Professionals, Appalachian Voices, Virginia Interfaith Power and Light and Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions.
Jordan said she will ask her colleagues in Richmond City Council to join the lawsuit by filing an amicus brief or if time is willing, join as a party to the case. An amicus brief provides additional information to a lawsuit the court may consider.
Virginia’s State Air Pollution Control Board and Department of Environmental Quality will need to respond to the petition by Sept. 13.
Contact executive editor Ananya Chetia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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