By Beth Kemler
Sneak attack, dirty trick, underhanded. Those are some of the terms used to describe Senate Republicans’ move to exploit the absence of one Democrat to pass an off-year redistricting bill – a story that became one of the hottest of this year’s Virginia General Assembly session.
Those terms also apply to one of the least covered stories of the session – a move by climate change-denying Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and electric utilities, including Dominion Power, to effectively repeal one of the state’s core clean energy laws.
The law, known as the Renewable Portfolio Standard, was created in 2007 as a set of voluntary clean energy goals for electric utilities. Lawmakers intended it to bring new clean energy facilities online to lower air pollution, reduce our contribution to the carbon overload that causes climate change and create thousands of jobs.
Unfortunately, over time it became clear the law was not strong enough. Utilities were able to meet the goals (and qualify for the associated financial incentive) by buying energy credits from old hydropower dams – many built before World War II. In response, thousands of Virginians asked legislators to strengthen the law to make utilities earn the incentives with modern wind and solar power.
Then came the sneak attack. This legislative session, Cuccinelli teamed up with Dominion Power, the state’s biggest climate polluter, to effectively roll back the law.
The attorney general’s office and utilities announced they had struck a deal to repeal the performance incentive for meeting the clean energy goals, which would essentially repeal the law.
Here’s the dirty trick: After pushing for the same repeal in 2012 and losing, Cuccinelli took a different approach this session.
He finagled the repeal into one big “Christmas tree” bill, which includes numerous changes to electricity regulation – related only by the fact that they affect ratemaking. Instead of allowing legislators to debate the merits of rolling back a core clean energy law, he got them to swallow it as part of one large bill labeled as a move to “protect consumers.”
Here’s how it’s underhanded: Cuccinelli has, once again, attempted to cloak ideological activism as sound legal advice. Calling this a move to “protect consumers” is similar to his trying to sell onerous new building code rules that would effectively shut down all 21 clinics that provide abortions in the state as a move to “protect women’s health.”
A quick look at Cuccinelli’s donor list reveals potential political motivations – completely unrelated to protecting Virginia’s working families. Utilities and fossil fuel interests have donated more than $150,000 to his gubernatorial campaign. That includes $50,000 from oil baron Charles Koch, one of America’s biggest supporters of efforts to deny that climate change exists.
After losing both of his high-profile crusades on climate science – a lawsuit attempting to gain access to a University of Virginia scientist’s emails and another challenging the EPA’s basic finding that global warming pollution threatens our health – Cuccinelli attacked clean energy and climate policies under camouflage.
The plan from the attorney general and utilities has passed. But Virginians who want clean energy will not give up.
Environmentalists and Cuccinelli agree that Virginia’s 2007 Renewable Portfolio Standard law has not lived up to its intent, but our common ground ends there. The solution is to fix it, not nix it.
We need to strengthen the core details to ensure that utilities invest in modern, high-value types of energy – wind and solar power – with the most potential to lower pollution and bring jobs to Virginia. And with the incentive for utilities to participate in the voluntary program axed, we need to make it mandatory, as 29 states have done.
Virginia is among the states most vulnerable to climate change, with coastal areas of Hampton Roads experiencing rapid sea-level rise and the whole state experiencing more frequent and more severe extreme weather events. We simply can’t afford to let a friend of fossil fuel companies like Cuccinelli move us backward on clean energy.