Clean Energy’s Dirty Footprint
Craig Rucker of CFACT testified before the Commerce and Energy Subcommittee of the Virginia House of Delegates in February on behalf of legislation that would repeal RGGI and portions of the VCEA. Rucker told lawmakers that the “clean energy” initiatives that flow out of the climate change regulations are neither clean nor green because wind and solar energy projects come with their own environmental baggage.
Rucker told lawmakers that 440 solar projects in 70 counties are pending government and regulatory approval:
If all these projects are constructed, they would cover an area of 778 square miles, equal to 330,000 football fields, 35 times the size of New York City, larger than Albemarle County, and 1.5 times the size of Loudon County. They are not being constructed on land zoned for industrial or commercial use. Rather, in most cases the developers have chosen to seek special use permits from counties to site them on land zoned and master planned for agricultural and forest use.
That’s a big footprint and big price to pay for anyone who cares about the preservation of open land. And it gets worse. Solar factories call for clear cutting and topsoil removal of most of the acres where a proposed factory will sit, Rucker explained. Each acre will be covered with hundreds of solar panels, weighing more than five tons, he continued.
“Most of these solar panels are made in China,” he said. “At the end of their useful life, they must be removed, another extensive undertaking being that they contain toxic chemicals, such as cancer-causing cadmium.” Rucker anticipates a scenario where the waste generated by solar panels in Virginia could lead to a potential Superfund cleanup site.
Even so, a well-funded green lobby remains fully devoted to maintaining RGGI and other green initiatives in Virginia. The state chapter of the Sierra Club, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group; the Virginia Conservation Network, a nonprofit that brings together environmental activists across the state; and the Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, a coalition of businesses that support renewable energy, are among groups that have testified before the General Assembly in favor of climate change regulations.
Big Green Inc.—a project of the Institute for Energy Research (IER), a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, that favors free market energy policies—documents how left-leaning foundations spend billions of dollars supporting climate litigation and green regulations.
“Environmental groups have crafted a narrative that depicts their efforts as a ‘David versus Goliath’ battle against those who would like to see U.S. energy policy move in a free market direction,” Tom Pyle, the president of IER observes in a press release. “This narrative is false. Environmental groups outpace conservative and free-market groups both in terms of funding and organizational capacity.”
In Virginia, Rucker agrees that “the money and organization is on the other side of the table with the green lobby.” Even so, he finds that “it’s possible for free market activists to level the playing field with leftie environmentalists” based on the “power of ideas” and a “willingness to enter the fray.” He warns against leaving the field open to special interests that show up in force at public meetings and legislative hearings
“What they are advocating is not good for the environmental or the economy,” Rucker said. “It doesn’t take much to puncture their balloon.”
So what are the prospects for Youngkin’s efforts to provide his constituents with regulatory relief? The GOP regained control of the House of Delegates in addition to sweeping the statewide races in the 2021 elections. But the Democrats retained control of the Virginia Senate by a two-vote majority. Still, with the midterm elections looming, not all Senate Democrats may be keen on the idea of supporting higher energy prices.
Stephen D. Haner, a senior fellow of state and local tax policy at the Thomas Jefferson Institute, sees a “tough row to hoe” if Youngkin expects quick action on repealing RGGI. An executive order by itself may not be enough, he said, in an interview with the Heartland Institute, a free market think based in Illinois. But Haner does see opportunities for Youngkin through the regulatory process. The legislation passed during Northam’s term authorized RGGI regulations but did not mandate that Virginia join.
Just prior to leaving office in January, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) issued a legal analysis in which he concluded that the governor cannot “repeal or eliminate” the regulatory requirements attached to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative “solely through an executive order or other executive action.” Herring narrowly lost his bid for a third term as attorney general to Jason Miyares, a Republican who previously was a member of the House of Delegates. Miyares has so far declined to offer any official comment about Youngkin’s order. But Nate Benforado, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, was quick to pounce describing Youngkin’s executive order as an “illegal repeal” and a “dead end” in a press statement. InfluenceWatch, a project of Capital Research Center, describes the Southern Environmental Law Center as “a left-of-center litigation group that opposes energy infrastructure projects in the southeastern United States.” The center also receives “substantial funding” from “left-of-center environmentalist institutional grantmakers.”
None of Youngkin’s critics were exactly scandalized when Northam appeared poised to circumvent the legislative process through unilateral executive action to force Virginia into RGGI. While Youngkin’s executive order remains a source of consternation for left-of-center attorneys and green activists, it is worth noting that it is being advanced in tandem with legislation and budgetary action that would also repeal RGGI. Unlike Northam, the new Republican governor is fully engaged with the legislative process. Macaulay Porter, Youngkin’s press secretary, told the Daily Signal that while the executive order “initiated the regulatory process to withdraw” the governor is also backing several bills (including HB 1301, HB 118, and SB 532) and a budgetary amendment that would terminate Virginia’s participation in RGGI.
Northam cited “environmental threats” facing the planet as a rationale for entering the climate change agreement. The cap-and-trade regulations that sit at the center of RGGI are designed to provide energy companies with financial incentives to reduce CO2 emissions. Companies that meet or exceed emissions targets in Virginia and the other 10 states may sell any excess allowances to companies that have not done so. RGGI also includes Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Government regulators in those states impose an upper limit or “cap” on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that power plants are permitted to emit. The initiative also creates “allowances” within interstate auctions that may be traded back and forth among companies subjected to the emission caps.
In his executive order, Youngkin describes how carbon taxes figure into the equation, compliments of Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility. There is no denying the higher costs RGGI sticks to energy consumers in a recent filing Dominion Energy made with the State Corporation Commission, a regulatory agency with authority over utilities:
Virginia’s utilities have sold over $227 million in allowances in 2021 during the RGGI auctions, doubling the initial estimates. Those utilities are allowed to pass on the costs of purchasing allowances to their ratepayers. Under the initial bill ‘RGGI rider’ created for Dominion Energy customers, typical residential customer bills were increased by $2.39 a month and the typical industrial customer bill was raised by $1,554 per month. In a filling before the State Corporation Commission, Dominion Energy stated that “RGGI will cost ratepayers between $1 billion and $1.2 billion over the next four years.
In the next installment, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has been pushing back at the governor’s efforts to drag Pennsylvania into RGGI.