Youngkin Tilting at Windmills, Releases Bogus RGGI “Report"

Big polluters can't hide that Virginia's popular RGGI program is already slashing pollution and funding energy independence.

Credit: (Source: iStock)

Incoming Gov. Youngkin in January tasked his Special Advisor and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler with producing an assessment of Virginia’s overwhelmingly popular climate law—the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, also known as RGGI.

But a funny thing happened to Wheeler's RGGI “report,” released late yesterday, on its way to Gov. Youngkin’s desk.

This key fact didn't make the final cut: In just its first year, RGGI helped the Commonwealth slash climate-disrupting carbon pollution from old coal and fossil gas plants by over 13%, even as Virginia’s economy came back to life and grew beyond its pre-pandemic levels.

RGGI also helped deliver clean, zero-pollution energy growth in Virginia, with solar and wind power up over 130%, and reducing our dependence on mostly-imported fossil fuels by 15%.

RGGI’s performance is good news for Virginians’ health: reduced fossil fuel burning means less smokestack air pollution like that pictured above: sulfur dioxide (SO2), which causes acid raid, and nitrous oxides (NOx), which worsens asthma and other respiratory diseases, particularly among children and the elderly. In RGGI’s first year here, Virginia’s 2021 power plant SO2 emissions dropped by 13%, and NOx by nearly a fifth. That cleaner RGGI air will help deliver up to $34 million in health benefits for Virginians, every year moving forward.

Virginia’s year-one RGGI benefits are impressive—and no surprise. The over 1 in 5 American states elsewhere benefitting from RGGI for over a decade cut their carbon pollution in half and secured billions of dollars in public health benefits from cleaner air. And that while also driving billions in cost-of-living reductions, through RGGI-funded energy efficiency upgrades in homes and businesses.  

And don't believe the haters: electricity prices in those RGGI states have fallen. That's what happens when you invest in energy efficiency and zero fuel-cost renewable energy, rather than in costly fossil fuels, and that’s why we’re already seeing RGGI’s success in Virginia.

And yet, you wouldn’t hear any of these tangible benefits in the governor’s fact-challenged, polluter patronage RGGI "report." That's because it's the core of Gov. Youngkin’s ultra-partisan attempt to take Virginia backward on our climate, our health, and our economy.

RGGI Delivers Cost-of-Living Reductions and Protection from Sea-level Rise to Everyday Virginians

Back here in the real world, RGGI delivers investments that lower Virginians’ cost of living, by cutting electricity bills. Virginia’s electricity rates—before RGGI kicked in—are among the highest in the south, with federal data showing our 2020 rates were higher than every single southern state, from here all the way over to Texas (except two, South Carolina and Alabama).

To tackle that cost-of-living expense, RGGI helps lower utility bills with funds for Virginians to invest in energy- and money-saving efficiency upgrades, to use energy smarter and waste less. In its first year alone, RGGI provided millions of dollars for efficiency upgrades in thousands of homes where these investments are needed most, from down in South Boston and over to Wytheville.

RGGI has also already delivered hundreds of millions in funding across Hampton Roads to cope with sea-level rise, an encroaching slow-motion disaster flooding properties along our coast, with another foot of water coming in just the next few decades. RGGI investments will help avert the $5 billion in sea-level rise damages expected every year along the economic engine of our coast.

Wheeler’s RGGI “Report” Is Doomed to Fail

Bizarrely—or perhaps brazenly—all of these proven pollution-slashing and cost-of-living savings are missing in the Wheeler/Youngkin RGGI “report.”

That's presumably because, against Virginians’ interests and wishes, Gov. Youngkin has vowed to strike our state climate law by executive fiat, our constitution be damned. In doing so, he is inexplicably using his fresh governorship for the deep pockets and cynical self-interests of out-of-state fossil fuel proponents.   

Rather than recognizing, celebrating, and reporting on RGGI’s real world performance, Wheeler’s report reads like an extended press release, with cynical talking points about inflation, taxes, and the “emergency” of our high electric rates (none of which are caused by RGGI, by the way). The fact-challenged screed is a flimsy fig leaf by which the frosh governor might—might—fecklessly attempt to strike a law by fiat. And he would do so on behalf of the Big Polluter lobby that's taken up residence in this brand new governor’s single term.

Electricity Prices Are Indeed Too High in Virginia, and RGGI Will Help

Youngkin should dial down this overheated, overpromising to the fossil fuel lobby, and seize what's right in front of him, to actually help Virginians' cost of living.

If Youngkin has a genuine interest in tackling Virginia’s high electric rates, which yes, as of 2020 according to federal data are way too high, he’d be wise to consider that that is precisely why RGGI invests directly in energy efficiency and zero-fuel-cost clean energy. These untapped energy independence resources are exactly what we need to reduce Virginians' costs-of-living, geopolitical vulnerability, and price shocks from imported fossil fuels.

After decades of overinvestment in fossil fuels, Virginia’s electric rates are now higher than every neighboring regulated state. Over the same period, electric rates in states that joined RGGI years ago declined, as RGGI’s investments saved those states' billions of dollars on electric bills.

Under Virginia's RGGI law, the Commonwealth will share in these benefits.

If Youngkin is truly interested in lowering energy prices, he would thus embrace and accelerate, rather than mindlessly attack, RGGI’s shift toward greater energy efficiency and zero-fuel cost celan energy. Youngkin could also take action by supporting the removal of state electric utilities’ manipulation of RGGI to pad their profits via “RAC” accounting gimmicks.

What’s Really Going On Here, and What’s Next?

Hopefully there’s someone in the Governor’s office to gently remind him that when you’re in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging.

Indeed, Gov. Youngkin’s underwater favorability—contrasted against Virginian’s overwhelming support for RGGI, by more than a 2 to 1 margin—shows Youngkin’s mindless attacks on our historic climate progress is just not what Virginians want.

Hyper-partisans from outside Virginia may egg on Youngkin’s inflated political ambition, but other than the out-of-state special interests that Andrew Wheeler represents inside the Governor’s Mansion, no one in Virginia is asking to leave the popular RGGI program.

That makes it a dead-end here in Virginia to try to make partisan red-meat out of popular, commonsense climate progress that boosts our energy independence. It's an even deader end to try an executive end run around the Constitution of the Commonwealth, all to pointlessly die in court on the fossil lobby's hill.

The Governor's circle may have thought it wise to generate a press hit with his pre-inaugural salvo at RGGI, at the behest of his then transition-advisor Wheeler. But before Youngkin jumps off the cliff into fatal legal waters, some advice: he might take a closer look at Special Advisor Wheeler’s losing record, for his last boss in DC, in trying to illegally roll back Americans' fundamental health safeguards.

Because Governor, it’s time to stop digging.

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