Bay Journal

Greens fault McAuliffe’s record so far on climate change, clean energy

Virginia governor criticized for supporting offshore drilling and pipelines and for handling of coal ash disposal

  • By Jeff Day on April 29, 2016
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, shown here announcing farm conservation initiative in 2014, is being accused by environmentalists of not living up to campaign pledges to promote clean energy and fight climate change. (Leslie Middleton)

A coalition of activist groups is giving Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe poor grades on climate change and clean energy, accusing him of failing to live up to his campaign pledges in his first two years in office.

Calling McAuliffe a “significant disappointment,” the groups rated the Democrat a D-plus overall, faulting him especially for the state’s handling of coal-ash disposal and a proposed natural gas pipeline.

“Climate leadership, at its core, means keeping fossil fuels in the ground, not lobbying for decades’ more reliance on fracked gas and offshore oil drilling,” Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network said in a telephone press conference. Other groups joining in the report card’s release were Virginia Organizing, the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, and Interfaith Power & Light.

The report card praises McAuliffe for decisions that ended tax breaks for coal mining companies. Speaking at the Environment Virginia Symposium April 6, the governor boasted that only 1,900 coal mining jobs remain in the Old Dominion. McAuliffe also was credited for his work to help coastal Virginia adapt to sea level rise.

McAuliffe communications director Brian Coy said the governor “has made reducing carbon emissions and preparing for climate change a centerpiece of his administration and will continue to advocate for policies that will make Virginia a global leader in clean and low-carbon energy and technologies.”

However, the report card gives McAuliffe an F for his administration's handling of cleaning up coal ash reservoirs, saying that his Department of Environmental Quality has thus far backed Dominion Virginia Power “at every step” as the Richmond-based energy company seeks permits to de-water the ponds and bury the power plant waste.

The two permits that DEQ has signed off on so far allow Dominion to dump some 500 million gallons of wastewater into the James River and Quantico Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River, without using best available technology and with levels of arsenic that exceed those permitted in North Carolina, according to CCAN.

“Our concern is that what Dominion wants is what the governor adopts,” Tidwell said.

The governor got a D- for his support of offshore oil and gas drilling and for backing two proposed gas pipelines, Dominion’s 560-mile long Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a planned 301-mile pipeline backed by a consortium of small pipeline companies. Both projects would transport gas extracted from the Marcellus and Utica Shale deposits using hydraulic fracturing.

Tidwell said McAuliffe has an opportunity to turn his environmental legacy around in the remaining 20 months by developing a state compliance program for EPA’s Clean Power Plan that extends carbon emission reduction mandates to yet-to-be-built power plants.

The governor pledged at the Environment Virginia Symposium to produce the state plan in 2017, but the General Assembly then approved a budget with language that blocks the DEQ from working on it. The U.S. Supreme Court has stayed EPA's regulation, pending a court review of its constitutionality.

Asked if McAuliffe would continue to develop the plan using non-DEQ staff and resources, Coy said that the governor’s team is evaluating the recent budget language with respect to the future of the Clean Power Plan.

“The governor will take whatever steps he can to continue preparations to turn this policy into an environmental and economic win for Virginia,” McAuliffe's spokesman said.

If work on a state compliance plan stops, the next best thing the governor could do is issue an executive order under which Virginia would join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, Tidwell said.

RGGI, a multi-state, market-based regulatory program aimed at reducing carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants, generates revenue for participating states that they can use for energy conservation and other efforts. Member states now are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Tidwell estimated that Virginia could earn $200 million a year if it joined the initiative.

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About Jeff Day
Jeff Day covered government policy developments for more than 20 years at Bloomberg BNA, including Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts since 2009. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Jeff Day

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