On Sept. 16, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a forward-looking objective of achieving 100 percent renewable electricity for Virginia by 2050. Unfortunately, Virginia cannot reach this goal if the governor, the General Assembly, and the state air and water control boards continue rubber-stamping natural gas pipelines and electric power plants that will further disrupt our climate and exacerbate environmental and public health problems in Virginia.
Just last November, the authors of this article were purged from our positions as members of Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board and State Water Control Board by Northam after we questioned the approval of new pipelines for fracked natural gas that, in addition to having serious impacts on public health, air and water quality, would drastically increase Virginia’s greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating the climate crisis.
Natural gas is a pretty name for a processed fossil fuel that is about 85 percent methane, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Together with agricultural methane emissions, methane fuel leaks are now estimated to be the cause of approximately 25 percent of the current global warming. Immediate reductions in methane leaks from existing natural gas wells, pipelines, storage tanks, and power plants, and banning all new methane wells and transportation infrastructure are essential actions to prevent catastrophic global warming in the next three decades.
Instead of urgently investing entirely in new highly efficient wind and solar electricity generation, Virginia’s utilities are fixated on spending over $8 billion on new methane infrastructure. Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline would bring fracked methane to Virginia and the Carolinas. Roanoke Gas Company, which is determined to support the Mountain Valley Pipeline, is seeking higher electricity rates to help finance it. Virginia’s governor, General Assembly and regulatory boards are approving these methane fossil fuel projects without regard to their adverse climate impacts.
Here is an overview of the fate of recent state initiatives to slow global warming:
- This April, the air board adopted a forward-looking carbon emissions control rule that would bring Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a consortium of neighboring states that already runs a successful carbon emissions reduction system. Instead of supporting this market-based system, the Republican-controlled General Assembly denied the use of any State funds to join RGGI or implement the air board rule. Despite Northam’s earlier methane leakage control directive, his Department of Environmental Quality and air board have not yet even proposed draft rules for this purpose.
- In the fall of 2018, the air board held public hearings on an air permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s Buckingham Compressor Station. The air board unquestionably had jurisdiction over siting and emissions from this 54,000-horsepower plant, which Dominion foolishly sited in the historic minority community of Union Hill. The permit faced vigorous opposition from local residents. Air board members Bleicher and Rubin raised questions about environmental justice, climate impacts, and exaggerated demand projections for the methane. Northam abruptly removed Bleicher and Rubin. The remaining board members approved the permit.
- Relying on Dominion’s inflated electricity and methane demand projections, Virginia utilities quickly sought permits for new methane-fueled electricity power plants before the proposed air board carbon rules could affect them. The first was granted in June 2016. This June, the board approved a permit for the largest methane power plant in the Commonwealth (and one of the largest in the country) despite DEQ staff concerns about inadequate public disclosures. The large projected emissions from these power plants will likely be used to justify raising carbon emission baselines if the air board’s carbon control rule is ever revived.
- At the same time Northam removed Bleicher and Rubin from the air board, he also removed Water Control Board member Roberta Kellam, who had opposed a Clean Water Act certification for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. A month later, in December, Virginia Attorney General Herring sued Mountain Valley Pipeline for over 300 violations of state water pollution rules during its construction. This disregard for water quality requirements prompted the board to initiate a proceeding to suspend the pipeline’s certification. But at its next meeting, the board reversed its decision.
Fortunately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled last fall that approval of Atlantic Coast Pipeline construction across the Appalachian Trail violated federal statutes, and ruled this June that granting federal Endangered Species Act permits was “arbitrary and capricious.” Virginia’s utilities are still pursuing new methane infrastructure, disregarding climate impacts, judicial setbacks, and intense citizen opposition. They are seeking Supreme Court review and hoping for a congressional override of the Fourth Circuit’s decision.
The Virginia executive branch’s actions are undermining its own goal of eliminating fossil fuel electricity generation by 2050. No Virginia government agency has been willing or able to block new methane infrastructure projects. Perhaps they feared further obstruction or retaliation by the current General Assembly. The governor’s recent executive order just calls for a “plan” to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2050. It is an important first step, but all elected and appointed officials must take bold action over the coming decades to meet this target.
Sam Bleicher is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and author of “The Plot To Cool The Planet, A Novel.” Rebecca R. Rubin is president and CEO of Marstel-Day Environmental Consulting. They are former members of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board. Roberta A. Kellam is a resident of Franktown, Virginia, and is a former member of the State Water Control Board.