Newly Elected Virginia Democrats Are Already Taking Serious Climate Action

Governor-elect Ralph Northam. Photo: AP
Governor-elect Ralph Northam. Photo: AP

Elections have consequences, and Democrats won maaaajor this month. That’s good news for climate policy, especially as President Donald Trump and his climate-denying minions take strides to roll back environmental policies meant to not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions but also keep pollution at bay.


Regulators in Virginia are wasting no time addressing climate change after the news of the democratic victories. With Democrat Ralph Northam set to replace Governor Terry McAuliffe come January, the state is hopping on the carbon-trading bandwagon that has swept the Northeast.


The State Air Pollution Control Board unanimously approved a draft rule Thursday that would keep its power plants in check—and, in turn, carbon emissions and pollutants—with a cap that’d start in 2020 with the intention of reducing carbon emissions 30 percent over 10 years.

This rule was months in the making. In May, McAuliffe called, via executive order, for industry, environmental, and government peeps to come together to create a working group to determine the best way to reduce carbon emissions. McAuliffe waited until Northam’s victory to release details on the rule as Republican contender Ed Gillespie had less climate-friendly plans in mind.

“Virginia is uniquely vulnerable to the threat of climate change and many of our residents are already experiencing its impacts,” said McAuliffe, in a press release. “We do not have the luxury of waiting for Washington to wake up to this threat. We must act now.”

The state plans to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). It’s a market-based, carbon-trading program that’s been around since 2010 and currently involves Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.


Since RGGI’s birth, states have reduced carbon emissions 15 percent more than other states while growing their economy by 4.3 percent, according to a September report released by the Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy organization.

Beyond just reducing emissions and pollutants, the initiative helps states generate revenue. State utilities can trade emission credits, which the state offers fewer of every year. They gotta’ buy these credits first, though. That’s where the money comes from.


Anyway, without getting too into the weeds of carbon trading, states can use the revenue as they see fit so long as it’s going toward programs like renewable energy and energy efficiency. What’s been tough for states, as Jordan Stutt, policy analyst at the Acadia Center noted, is figuring out how to make sure these dollars benefit the vulnerable low-income and communities of color that need them the most. They’re working on that.


“It’s a market-based system, so it allows the market to identify the lowest cost opportunities to reduce CO2 emissions,” Stutt told Earther. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that those CO2 reductions will occur in communities that are already overburdened.”

So that sucks. But! Virginia joining is a big deal. The state’s power plants emit a shit ton of carbon a year: 31 million metric tons, to be exact. Once it joins the RGGI, that should decrease—and the state and its constituents will reap benefits.


Generally, states pool this money into current programs like, say, energy efficiency. Residents can have their homes weatherized at a cheaper price than they otherwise would have because, maybe, the state is subsidizing this service. Then, electricity bills go down. That’s how Stutt explained it.

This is all happening without the help of the president or Congress. That’s the beauty of local action: Things get done with or without the federal government.


“We have federal government officials talking about carbon dioxide as a plant nutrient, so these can be discouraging times for anyone who cares about climate change and the environment,” said Stutt. “But it’s great to see that we do have leaders who care about serious issues and are willing to implement practical solutions to those challenges.”

So while some point to the Democratic Party’s lack of a clear climate plan, others argue the party doesn’t need it because, c’mon, local policy is where it’s at anyway.


With more and more science (and an abundance of natural disasters) reminding representatives about the urgency of climate change and pushing them to take harder action on climate change, humanity might just dodge extinction. Cheers to that.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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Let’s look at Virginia’s electricity generation by fuel type and is sitting behind the eight ball as far as carbon intensity of its electricity (it’s high in CO2 emissions):

Electricity data from

For August 2017 the mix (rounded) was as follows:

Natural gas: 54%

Nuclear: 28%

Coal: 14%

Biomass: 3%

Hydro: 1%

Solar: 0%

Wind: 0%

Virginia needs to join RGGI so they can increase the regional mix - so the regional mix has something left to trade. Virginia’s carbon intensity is one of the worst in the US except maybe the coal states like Kentucky.

Virginia also benefits from all that cheap natural gas sitting in the Marcellus and Utica shale to the west. Mother nature when she laid all that kerogen down didn’t think about Virginia.

RGGI was to become the model for the national Clean Power Plan. It doesn’t really do much for specific groups, except for marketing.

On a state by state basis, Virginia doesn’t have wind potential except offshore. That still is expensive and difficult to deploy under Trump and republicans in charge. Its solar lags far behind North Carolina. Chiefly due to land prices making utility scale not as feasible. Distributed solar needs better state policies to go forward.

Off topic - but on the subject of environmental justice:

I highly recommend watching the Documentary called “Red Power Energy” produced by Rocky Mountain PBS. It presents an awkward picture of oil and gas development on Indian lands. The tribes that have oil and gas are pretty pro oil and gas. This would be the Southern Ute of New Mexico and the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold in North Dakota (Bakken riches). The point being is that it shows the limits of identity politics as applied to environment and energy policy. Sort of like when democrats went apeshit on identity politics and Trump came in with Peter Thiel and Kellyann Conway.