RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — As flooding impacts Virginia’s coast in the wake of Hurricane Ian, the future of funding to fix the problem is unclear.
Governor Glenn Youngkin is currently trying to pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), an agreement between eleven states designed to reduce carbon emissions that harm the environment. The program also raises money for programs that pay for energy efficiency in low-income homes and local flood preparedness.
In an interview on Tuesday, acting Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Travis Voyles said resiliency and flood mitigation efforts will continue to be a top priority of the administration.
But their plans to replace the money are still short on specifics.
“We’re seeing the impacts of climate change,” Voyles said, “We’re going to move forward and look for real solutions to help address this.”
“We definitely are pulling out of RGGI so we know that part of that is looking at the funding mechanisms and the pots of money that are in place and what that looks like moving forward. We’re working with the legislature right now,” Voyles said.
Voyles couldn’t guarantee that the same level of investment will be maintained down the road.
“We’ll see what comes out of the negotiations and the proposals. I don’t think anyone expected to see the dollar amounts we’re seeing out of RGGI. It just shows how the system isn’t working,” Voyles said.
Youngkin has argued that participation in RGGI has led to higher energy bills, without the intended benefits. Since energy monopolies can pass on costs entirely to customers, he says providers have little incentive to reduce emissions.
Wetlands Watch Executive Director Skip Stiles sees it differently.
“The Youngkin administration inherited one of the most robust sets of public policy of any state in the country for dealing with sea level rise and flooding,” Stiles said. “The administration says RGGI is a bad deal for Virginia but it doesn’t make any proposal for replacing it with a good deal.”
Stiles said, before Virginia joined RGGI, no state dollars were going towards major flood prevention projects. He fears that money won’t be replaced and localities won’t be able to commit to further upgrades if the funding stream is left up to the “whims of the legislature.”
“You don’t spend staff, time, and money designing plans when you don’t know where the construction money is and, if you want to depend on the feds, then get in line,” Stiles said.
Asked why the administration didn’t identify a specific funding source before initiating efforts to withdraw from RGGI, Voyles said, “We took what immediate steps that we felt like we could, and that was announcing our timeline for RGGI and starting that regulatory process. So we know that there are still some steps to go.”
Youngkin has already had an opportunity to influence legislation and introduce budget amendments since taking office in January 2022. The administration is taking regulatory action to withdraw from RGGI because an effort to do so in the General Assembly failed during the 2022 session. Some advocates argue Youngkin doesn’t have the authority to act without the help of lawmakers, who approved the agreement in the first place.
Voyles said they’ll release a “comprehensive plan” for the 2023 session, giving them time to take further action before the total repeal of RGGI is expected to be complete at the end of the calendar year.
“We’re seeing the impacts of climate change,” Voyles said. “We’re going to move forward and look for real solutions to help address this.”
Voyles said the administration doesn’t plan to introduce legislation to tweak the structure of RGGI, rather than withdrawing from it altogether, but they’re open to other reforms to lower energy bills.
For example, two major electric utilities in Virginia are increasing monthly bills in response to rising fuel prices. The hike is much larger than the increase associated with RGGI. Some advocates say state lawmakers should require utilities to split the cost burden associated with fossil fuel price fluctuations with customers to incentivize a faster shift to clean energy.
Asked why the administration hasn’t focused on that reform, Voyles said, “I think we’re open to discussion at large about energy. How to make sure it’s more transparent, how to ensure that those costs are not increasing for Virginians and to make us more competitive against some of our peer states. So I don’t know if we’re willing to take anything off the table right now.”
Voyles said the 2022 Virginia Energy Plan that Youngkin announced on Monday was the first step. It supports expanding nuclear energy, restoring some state oversight over electric monopolies and revisiting a law transitioning Virginia’s electric grid to 100 percent carbon-free sources by 2050.
The framework is already facing backlash from advocates who say the plan undercuts Virginia’s clean energy future and sides with the fossil fuel industry.
“I don’t think it does at all. It really understands the reality and the technological capabilities that we have today,” Voyles said. “It will get us toward a clean energy future. I would encourage people to not write the plan off. “