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COMMENTARY: Why Northam Folded 

The governor’s recent balk on cap-and-trade legislation angers environmentalists, signals a change in strategy. 

click to enlarge Gov. Ralph Northam

Scott Elmquist/File

Gov. Ralph Northam

Back in the 1980s, Virginians noticed that their cars often had little pimples on their paint. Trees high on mountains were dying. Scientists traced the phenomena to acid rain — pollution from sulfur and nitrous oxides emitted by coal-burning power plants.

In 1990, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set up a national system of setting a cap on those pollutants. Polluters could buy and sell allotments of them. The cap would decrease yearly. Damage from acid rain decreased as the program was deemed a resounding success.

More recently, Virginia had a chance to join a similar cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide, a pollutant that contributes to climate change and is a much more serious threat than acid rain.

Last month, the Air Pollution Control Board voted to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a 10-year-old program involving nine Northeastern states, including Maryland, to establish caps and a trading mechanism that could cut carbon emissions in the area by 30 percent within about a decade.

Like his Democratic predecessor Terry McAuliffe, Gov. Ralph Northam said he backed the idea. He faced strong opposition from Republicans in the General Assembly who had tied up the state's attempt to join the initiative in a convoluted budget bill that Northam would have to veto for the program to proceed.

On May 2, Northam balked. A representative said that a veto would set up a protracted legal battle and that it would be better to concentrate on November elections when Democrats could sweep aside Republican control of the legislature.

Powerful utility Dominion Energy praised Northam's decision, telling Style Weekly that the initiative was too expensive and that since 2005, the utility achieved a 52 percent reduction in carbon emissions without it.

Environmentalists are livid. In a media statement, Walton Shepherd, a Virginia policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called Northam's decision "a disastrous and cowardly retreat."

In fact, the failure to move forward with measures to fight climate change has long been a Virginia custom.

About a decade ago, some states came with an idea called a Renewable Portfolio Standard that would require their utilities to get a percentage of their generation capacity from renewable sources such as wind or solar within certain deadlines.

Many states adopted the measure and made it mandatory. Pro-business Virginia made it only voluntary. The consequence? For years, Virginia has lagged behind other states in renewable energy use, including neighboring North Carolina, which agreed to make the program mandatory.

The initiative's cap-and-trade system, the first one in the U.S., affects any fossil fuel generating station capable of generating 25 megawatts of power or more. There are about 30 of them in the state.

Dominion has upped its game recently with plants for solar generation and has been permanently shutting down older coal-fired plants.

For Northam, balking on initiative only further diminishes his position with the state's green community. It had already been angry with him for continuing to back the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would pump natural gas from fracking operations in West Virginia hundreds of miles through the Old Dominion to North Carolina. Dominion is the lead partner of a group that has been fighting for about five years for the huge project.

Opponents complain that it will destroy plants and wildlife, hurt property values, pose a safety hazard and contribute to climate change. It is also not entirely clear who would use the natural gas and if the project is necessary. Opposition has been so stiff that a series of legal challenges by green groups and others has halted its construction at least temporarily. The court battles have delayed the project's opening and have dramatically increased its price tag from about $6 billion to $7.5 billion or more.

One of Dominion's partners in the project, Duke Energy Corp., seems to be becoming squeamish. In March, Bloomberg News reported that Duke's chief executive, Lynn Good, said that her utility may need to find a Plan B to ship gas if the Dominion-led project fails.

It seems obvious that Virginia's participation in a mandatory-cap and-trade program would seriously impact demand for natural gas from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The program is designed to reduce the carbon cap gradually over the years.

As that happens, renewable energy would become more economically attractive. It "disincentives carbon-emitting fuel like fracked gas," says Ivy Main, a lawyer who works with the Sierra Club.

For now, Northam says he'll direct state agencies to find ways of lowering carbon emissions, but that's something that could have happened before. The next step is in November when all 140 General Assembly seats are up for grabs.

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