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By leaving the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Virginia is walking away from at least $2 billion in future revenue, according to VCU’s Damian Pitt. (Getty Images)

VCU's Damian Pitt shares insight into Virginia’s withdrawal from Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

“We have lost one of the more important tools in our toolbox,” says expert in sustainability-focused energy policy.

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The state Air Pollution Control Board voted 4-3 recently to withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate carbon cap-and-trade program that aims to reduce power plants’ carbon emissions.

Damian Pitt, Ph.D., an associate professor of urban planning in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, is an expert in sustainability-focused energy policy in Virginia and the Atlantic region and is associate director of policy and community engagement for VCU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy and Environment. Pitt discussed what withdrawal from the 11-state RGGI might mean for Virginia.

What is the significance of this withdrawal?

The significance of this decision is that by removing Virginia from the RGGI cap-and-trade program, we have lost one of the more important tools in our toolbox for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the future impacts of climate change. Furthermore, by leaving RGGI, Virginia is walking away from at least $2 billion in future revenue, beyond the hundreds of millions that have already been generated through the program's carbon allowance auctions. 

By law, the vast majority of this revenue is divided roughly evenly between flood mitigation measures and energy efficiency improvements for low-income households. According to my research, the revenue that Virginia could generate by staying in RGGI through 2030 would support energy efficiency upgrades for over 100,000 low-income households.

We have a major energy burden problem in this state, with hundreds of thousands of households across all parts of the state spending exorbitant percentages of their incomes on household energy costs. By withdrawing from RGGI, we are taking away revenue that could have provided meaningful assistance to those Virginia families.

Have you seen data that confirms the assumptions on electrical generation and CO2 emissions? 

I don't think the technical arguments presented to justify Virginia's withdrawal from RGGI merit much scrutiny, as this has been an entirely political debate from the outset.

First, legislation to prohibit Virginia from joining RGGI was passed on an entirely party-

Head shot image of Damian Pitt.
Damian Pitt, Ph.D., is an expert in sustainability-focused energy policy in Virginia and the Atlantic region. (File photo)

line vote in 2019. After the Democrats took control of the General Assembly later that year, the ensuing legislation to join RGGI also passed on almost entirely party-line votes. Governor Youngkin frequently cited his opposition to RGGI on the campaign trail, and it was his four Air Pollution Control Board appointees who cast the four votes to withdraw from RGGI.

Additionally, if the anti-RGGI interests truly believe that the problem with RGGI is its ineffectiveness at reducing air pollution, then what solutions do they support that would be more effective? Unfortunately, actions that would reduce air pollution — supporting renewable energy, energy efficiency, etc. — have been highly partisan for quite some time, and the debate over RGGI is just the most recent example of that.

Do you see any common policy ground for addressing sustainable energy in Virginia in the current environment?

Unfortunately, no. As long as clean energy and climate change mitigation remain partisan culture-war issues, I don't see much grounds for compromise. This isn't a debate about finding the most effective method of mitigating future climate change — it's a power struggle over whether addressing climate change is something we're willing to do at all.

What trends might this create in the short and long term for Virginia and the region?

That's a good question. The good news is that renewables and energy efficiency remain the most cost-effective and easily scalable methods of addressing our future energy demands. Furthermore, we still have strong legislation in the form of the Virginia Clean Economy Act that still requires our major electric utilities to achieve 100% clean energy over the next 20-25 years. 

However, leaving RGGI removes one of the mechanisms that would facilitate achieving that goal, and again, it takes away an abundant revenue source that we could be using to both reduce future energy consumption and adapt to the coming impacts of climate change.

As to whether Virginia remains the strong leader in clean energy policy that it became in 2020-2021 or reverts back to a more fossil-fuel-dependent future, the results of the 2023 and 2025 statewide elections will determine that.

A version of this Q&A previously ran on the Wilder School’s website: Virginia leaves Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative: What you need to know.