Virginia’s So-Called Clean Economy Act is a Racket and a Taxpayer Drain

February 19, 2020
Virginia is primed for meaningful climate action, and the Virginia Clean Economy Act on its face may seem like a step in the right direction. But under closer scrutiny, the bill exposes itself as a handout to industry, a shoddy and possibly irreparable foundation for good climate policy, and a taxpayer drain.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is far from an climate champion, but he desperately wants you to think he is. Although he takes copious amounts of money from the fossil fuel industry, regularly enters closed-door meetings with dirty energy execs, and refuses to put a stop to the dangerous fossil fuel projects snaking their way through Virginia’s communities, Northam wants you to like him and give him credit he doesn’t deserve on climate policy. 

The Clean Economy Act Is A Toothless Piece Of Token Legislation

Northam’s latest faux-green move is to sell Virginians on legislation that claims to tackle climate change, but doesn’t actually stop new fossil fuel projects in the state or limit the use of dirty energy. Under the guise of a “pragmatic” compromise, the Virginia Clean Economy Act basically just mimics the commitments utilities have already made to lower their fossil fuel reliance — but in their own timeframes, always protecting their own profits. What good is a piece of climate legislation that doesn’t rein in polluters? 

In just the past five years, Virginia has okayed six  fracked gas plants, the Mountain Valley Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Transco Expansion pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate extension, the three pipelines that are part of the Header expansion project, as well as a number of compressor stations.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) is a Trojan horse that Northam is sending into our climate advocacy ranks. He hopes we’ll see it as a gift, but it’s only going to hurt climate progress and come back to bite us. It sets unambitious deadlines, puts us in cahoots with industry, and hurts taxpayers. SB 851 and its companion HB 1526 just passed both chambers of the state legislature, but still requires a few more rounds of votes before becoming law. If this bill passes, Virginians will be trapped with its inadequate foundations for decades to come, thwarting real, equitable clean and renewable energy development. 

The “Renewable Portfolio Standard” Is Full Of Dirty Energy Loopholes

The bill is sneaky with how it defines clean energy for Virginia’s renewable energy program. Line 1278 of SB851 demonstrates some of these tricky tactics:

“Zero-carbon electricity” means electricity generated by any generating unit that does not emit carbon dioxide as a byproduct of combusting fuel to generate electricity.

There are two big issues with this. The first is that defining “zero-carbon” as zero carbon dioxide ignores dangerous and widespread carbon emissions that are not carbon dioxide — methane, for instance, a main byproduct of fracking of burning fracked gas, which is four times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2.

Another big issue is that the “zero-carbon” language leaves room for nuclear energy, which may not emit carbon dioxide but is not clean or renewable by any stretch of the imagination. To this day, we have no foolproof way of disposing of radioactive waste, among other structural issues.

Another gigantic loophole is that “zero carbon” may leave room for a company to pursue carbon sequestration technology as a substitute for actually lowering fossil fuel usage. Carbon sequestration — the act of capturing carbon dioxide before it’s emitted into the air and then storing it — is harebrained. These schemes are overly ambitious and often ineffective, with no long-term guarantee they will actually keep carbon out of the atmosphere. They also don’t force us to change our bad fossil fuel habits, which pollute the environment and hurt human health long before any gas, oil, or coal ever gets burned. 

Just last week Dominion claimed that carbon sequestration will be a big part of how they’re getting to 100% “clean energy” by 2050. But that doesn’t sound like clean energy, it sounds like excuses to keep gas plants running (and pumping other pollutants into the air, which sicken surrounding communities) long past the 2050 deadline. And the VCEA permits that. Just get a load of this line from the bill: 

By December 31, 2030, any Phase II Utility shall retire any coal-fired electric generating units located in the coalfields region of the Commonwealth that co-fires with biomass, unless such facility can demonstrate at least 83 percent reduction in carbon emissions through capture and sequestration.

So, by employing risky and ill-conceived sequestration methods, the coal or gas industry can continue on with the status quo, which pollutes communities and will never be without a significant greenhouse gas impact. That doesn’t sound much like progress at all. What we need to do is halt the construction of new plans and shut down old ones.

Virginia's Clean Economy Act is a racket and a taxpayer drain.

The Clean Economy Act Is A Ratepayer-Funded Racket

The bill’s largest flaw is that it dumps all prospective costs for the new renewables standards onto consumers, rather than handing the bill to utilities companies, who will continue to prioritize profits over the public good. The bill directs the State Corporation Commission to approve any rate hikes meant to pursue the Renewable Portfolio Standard goal, which will land squarely on customers. The fossil fuel industry should be made to pay for our desperately-needed clean and renewable energy transition. Virginia’s families and communities, who’ve had too little say on the use of dangerous fossil fuels and the buildout of reckless fossil fuel infrastructure in the state, shouldn’t see the money coming out of their wallets.  

The State Corporation Commission estimates projected costs in the billions of dollars — and that’s just not in the monthly budget for Virginia’s families. The language even lets utilities pass any penalty costs on to consumers for not meeting the renewable standard goals required by the legislation, even though it’s the utilities, not the consumers, who would be guilty of the violation. The utility companies, which are notorious for charging unfair rates to customers to boost their bottom lines and for suppressing progress on renewables, need to be the ones footing the bill — but this legislation lets them pass it right on to ratepayers.

Until the corporations, and not the consumers, are held accountable for their negligent behavior, we simply cannot afford the VCEA, financially or otherwise.

A Just And Equitable Transition? Not So Fast.

One of the reasons Food & Water Action got so excited about Virginia’s Green New Deal Act was that the legislation provided specific provisions to bolster underserved communities and those who’ve already had to deal with the negative impacts of climate change. It made sure the transition to a green economy was fair and equitable; that utilities would shoulder costs instead of families; that removing gas plants, pipelines, and other polluting infrastructure from the communities they sicken is a first priority; and that those workers who’ve relied on the fossil fuel industry for their income would receive training and employment in well-paying clean energy jobs. Those policies are a win for everyone. 

The VCEA’s language on the transition is weak, and although the bill promises to “identify” and “prioritize” local workers, low-income communities, and people of color, it never says exactly how. Without clear policies in place to protect and empower these groups, it would be easy for a company to meet the letter of the law without actually engaging the spirit of the environmental justice movement — which strives to ensure that those most impacted by climate catastrophe and pollution receive the most help and have their demands uplifted.

Bills Like This Are Often Schemes To Subsidize Dirty Energy Suppliers

Meanwhile, the industry is already lobbying to ensure gas plants, nuclear power, and waste-to-energy schemes receive subsidies from the government. Legislators in Richmond are already eyeing bills that build more reliance on nuclear energy in order to meet the 100% renewable energy by 2050 deadline. A bill that died recently stipulated that gas and coal plants could even identify themselves as renewables if they employed a certain percentage of carbon capture. These are the sorts of bills we will continually be up against in Virginia. This scheming to prop up the fossil fuel industry must stop if we are going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but VCEA opens the door to even more of it.

Stopping The Virginia Clean Economy Act Is Crucial For Our Climate Future

You’ll hear some who claim they’re part of the climate movement say that we need to just hold our noses and pass this bill, and that it’s the only piece of environmental legislation with a chance of making it into law this session. But that small token isn’t worth all the time we’ll spend in the future trying to repair the terrible foundations of this bill. Virginia deserves aggressive climate legislation that actually serves the state’s communities and isn’t a handout to industry.

The reality is that we can’t pass this bill now and hope to fix it down the track. We have to stop this train before it leaves the station.