Virginia is feeling the heat of climate change. What upcoming legislation can help fix the problem?

Greater Greater Washington

From urban heat islands, to collapsing agricultural industries, and the rapid sinking of Hampton Roads, climate change is already taking a serious toll on Virginia. In response, the General Assembly has drafted a slew of bills to tackle climate change’s underlying causes. Here’s what we’re watching.

Housing:

While front-facing solar panels have been a hot button issue in the District for a while now, the fight for rooftop solar is only just heating up in the Commonwealth. To halt burdensome homeowner association covenants, Delegate Karrie K. Delaney of Chantilly introduced HB414. If passed, her bill would deem a restriction unreasonable if it increases the cost of an installation by more than $1,000 or decreases the utility of the panels’ energy generation by more than 10%.

Targeting the intersection of land use, housing, and transportation, Delegate Elizabeth Guzman of Dumfries has sponsored HB585 to require all Virginia localities to incorporate transit-oriented development (TOD) into their comprehensive plans for the express purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For rural counties that lack transit service, expect amendments that emphasize compact growth and channeling development to Virginia’s struggling small cities.

Transportation:

Much of the media attention surrounding climate change this session has focused on two dueling proposals tackling energy generation—the Virginia Clean Economy Act and the Green New Deal. While fossil fuel power plants are a key contributor to climate change at 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, the reality is our transportation sector is twice as bad, resulting in 45% percent of the Commonwealth’s carbon pollution.

HB577 from Delegate Mark Keam of Fairfax hopes to change that. His bill would switch Virginia from using the lax federal Clean Air Act standards for vehicle emissions to California’s stricter regime. With the Trump administration seeking to end California’s waiver—commonly referred to as Section 177, Virginia’s actions could become either a powerful rebuke of the president or a meaningless gesture depending on the courts’ decision.

Despite urbanists’ conviction that we must reduce our dependence on driving to overcome climate change, many lawmakers seem to be placing their hopes in electric vehicles (EVs). HB511 from Delegate David Bulova would allow state agencies to deploy EV charging stations without being considered a public utility. Delegate David Reid’s HB717 would create an EV rebate program offering $4,500 to any Virginian who upgrades to an electric car and doesn’t earn higher than 300% of the federal poverty level.

The first flank of Virginia’s vehicles to electrify en masse will likely be its school buses. Thanks to the grassroots organizing of groups like Mothers Out Front and Environment Virginia, Delegate Keam is also carrying HB1140, which establishes a Clean School Bus Grant Fund and Program. Unlike HB75 from Delegate Kaye Kory which would put Dominion Energy in the driver’s seat, Keam’s bill promotes a decentralized approach to school bus electrification that would leave local school districts in charge of switching out all diesel buses by 2030.

With all the proposals coming out of the legislature, it could be easy to overlook one of Virginia’s top tools to reduce its carbon pollution: the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI). Similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) the state is expected to join this session, TCI would initiate a market mechanism to lower carbon emissions from the transportation sector. Whether Governor Northam signs on to the memorandum of understanding with the twelve other participating states and DC in April will determine whether Virginia gets in on the ground floor of this potentially transformational pact.

The governor’s historic rail deal to rethink the Commonwealth’s transportation shows his administration is not afraid to think big in order to fix Virginia’s most pernicious problems. The long list of green legislation from lawmakers may mean Democrats’ newest blue trifecta state is all in on saving our climate.

Read More