See How Virginia’s Law-Making Session Did On Climate In 2020

March 19, 2020
 Climate Democracy
This year, Virginia’s legislative session was the most climate-oriented it’s ever been. But that doesn’t mean it was all good climate action. Here’s how it shook out.

In this year’s Virginia legislative session, the environment was a central focus. While the energy industry had more of a hand than they should in shaping new climate law, there were still a few good first steps for Virginia’s public health, communities, and environmental movement. We have a lot to be proud of, and a lot to keep fighting for.

The Virginia Green New Deal Act Gained Grassroots Support

This session started with a groundswell of grassroots activity. Food & Water Action, Sunrise Virginia, the Green New Deal Coalition and others rolled out Virginia-specific Green New Deal legislation. The Green New Deal Act, authored by Delegate Sam Rasoul, set ambitious but necessary goals to bolster an equitable transition to 100% clean and renewable energy in Virginia by 2036. 

Rasoul’s bill would end the buildout of fossil fuel infrastructure in Virginia and emphasize equity by prioritizing the communities already most impacted by climate change and fossil fuel pollution. It also guarantees assistance for transitioning to green energy jobs for all current fossil fuel workers, calming fears that curbing the fossil fuel industry would lead to an economic downturn.

While the Virginia Green New Deal ultimately hit snags that tabled it for this year’s session, the momentum it gained in such a short period, and the grassroots environmental coalition that rose up around it, show the staying power a fair and just environmental movement has in Virginia.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act Is A Red Herring

This loophole-riddled competitor to Green New Deal legislation set some climate benchmarks, but not nearly enough when we consider what Virginia needs to prepare for the future. For instance, it aims for a transition to clean energy by the year 2050 — even though IPCC scientists have told us this transition needs to take place 15 years earlier, at the latest, to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. In addition, the Clean Economy Act provides loopholes through which dirty fuels can stay in the “clean” energy mix, and it doesn’t push fossil fuel corporations or utilities beyond the minimal goals they’ve already set for themselves.

Food & Water Action’s advocacy against the Virginia Clean Economy Act aimed to amend the bill to include stronger protections for ratepayers and environmental justice, more ambitious goals, and fewer loopholes. This resulted in some shallow changes, but the drafters still failed to fix the bill’s many problematic shortcomings. However, lawmakers became keenly aware of how this bill would harm ratepayers, which led to many of them supporting Delegate Rasoul’s eleventh hour amendments to improve it. Unfortunately, House leadership prioritized industry profits over ratepayers and failed to pass Rasoul’s changes. Now the Clean Economy Act is headed to Governor Northam’s desk. He has the power to make changes to significantly strengthen it, though this seems unlikely.

Bans on Fracking & Offshore Drilling Are Clear Wins

Last week, after passing through the Virginia House, a bill banning hydraulic fracturing in certain parts of the state also passed through the Senate. This is an excellent start to what could hopefully turn into a statewide ban on fracking, which puts communities at risk and contaminates drinking water. The forward advance of a bill like this shows that fossil fuel monopolies no longer have the stranglehold on Virginia’s politics that they once had. 

Additionally, a bill prohibiting offshore drilling 50 miles or more off Virginia’s coast was signed by the Virginia House Speaker and Senate President last week. It removes policy supporting federal efforts to allow offshore oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic, and protects Virginia’s coastline from the all-too-familiar disasters that accompany offshore drilling. It is a win, to be sure.

Dirty Nuclear Gets a Seal of “Clean” Approval & A Bad Idea Gets Floated

In spite of mounting evidence that nuclear energy is not clean, safe, or equitable, both the Virginia House and Senate moved forward in recognizing it as a “clean” source of power this session. This unfortunate move is particularly dangerous because it could derail investments in truly clean and renewable energy — like wind and solar — in favor of subsidies to prop up aging nuclear facilities and pay for extractive mining of nuclear materials. 

A separate bill moved to recognize clean energy specifically as any energy source that is “carbon-free” — once again, a loophole that could include nuclear. Instead of committing to phasing out nuclear, Virginia is digging itself deeper into that ditch.

Yet another bill showcased the misguided vision that Virginia’s delegates have for energy: more natural gas as “transition fuel,” as well as new carbon sequestration techniques, which, if used, could allow fossil fuel plants to stay open for decades. The reason? Climate legislation in 2020 ran with the goal of making things “carbon-free” or “carbon-neutral,” which concerns itself with carbon emissions and not many of the other problems inherent with fossil fuel production. Carbon sequestration is a harebrained solution without any technological viability, and treating it as a long-term “solution” enables corporations to continue with business as usual.

The Year Ahead For Virginia’s Climate Solutions

Next year, lawmakers need to prioritize real climate solutions that don’t give way to industry interests. The Green New Deal Act was the only solution proposed this year ambitious enough to combat the climate crisis. Virginia had the chance to be a bold leader in the climate fight, but legislators wasted their opportunity. As a result, ongoing and new anti-fossil fuel fights which the act could have supported, will only get harder as more projects are proposed like the Virginia Natural Gas Header Improvement Project, C4GT and Chickahominy gas plants. 

Virginia’s lawmakers can’t rest on their puny laurels. There is still a ways to go and until legislation as bold as the Green New Deal Act is passed, the General Assembly is failing the state. In the meantime, Food & Water Action and our members will continue to fight like we live here!

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