Statewide environmental news roundup – Dec. 2022

An Eastern bluebird in Bridgewater. File photo by Eric Gorton.

A contributed perspectives piece by the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV)

Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of a regular series of contributed news roundups about statewide environmental and news. This piece highlights, with links to further coverage in various media outlets, recent environmental news stories of significance to Virginia, with a focus on energy and the environment.

Energy

Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)

“Virginia … [began its] official withdrawal [via the regulatory process] from [the] regional carbon market [known as RGGI, although] debates over legality of [the Youngkin administration’s and the Air Quality Control Board’s] move persist.” “Virginia began participating in RGGI following passage of the … Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act of 2020…. Virginia power producers must buy allowances for each metric ton of carbon they emit, with the number of allowances available for purchase at auction declining every year.” The previous and current Attorneys General provided different opinions as to the legality of the Youngkin approach. A Southern Environmental Law Center attorney argued such action must be done legislatively. A National Resources Defense Council lawyer tweeted “Weird [that the Governor]’s budget would make taxpayers pay for VA’s exorbitant flooding & energy costs. Yet in Q4 [22] alone, under VA’s RGGI law, big polluters just paid up another $70+ million, to do exactly that….” Other opinion writers, environmental organizations, and a legislative committee echoed that sentiment questioning the logic of eliminating the RGGI funding source for community flood resilience and energy efficiency improvements for low and middle income Virginians and allowing polluters to emit CO2 while proposing budget expenditures to pay for the recurrent damages that coastal and inland flooding that the state has experienced and will continue to experience. A blogger presented details about the proceeds from the RGGI auctions, describing them as “taxes”, noting that to date they’ve totaled close to $524 million. The Acting Secretary of Virginia’s Department of Natural and Historic Resources argued that RGGI is “a bad deal.” The regulatory action to withdraw Virginia from RGGI will continue in 2023.

Solar, Wind, and Nuclear

“The Rockingham County Board of Supervisors approved a large solar farm near Port Republic …. The permit [is] for a large-scale, ground-mounted solar facility on the south side of U.S. 340, … [on] … land previously disturbed by a quarry, and [the project] would produce 50 megawatts of power, … enough electricity to power 20% of the county’s households.” Franklin County’s Board of Supervisors voted to approve a siting agreement for … the county’s first utility-scale solar facility, a … 160-acre project ….” Other localities that recently approved similar projects include Halifax County and Henry County. Not all solar facilities meet with approval; recent examples of local opposition happened in Carroll County, in Isle of Wight County, in Bristersburg/Fauquier County, and in the town of South Boston.

A bill passed in the 2022 General Assembly called for a work group study to address solar development. That group delivered its report but achieved ”little consensus on [what new regulations should look like.] Solar developers were wary of regulation, and farm and conservation groups expressed concerns about land impacts. The report was “a 717-page document that included discussion of 41 proposals around definitions, processes and who should be involved with implementing the new regulations. The work group reached consensus on only four of those proposals and came close to consensus on 14. But on 23 — more than half of those considered — they remained deadlocked.” One opinion writer praised the bipartisan “consensus”.

An Augusta County solar developer is training students for careers in clean energy. The same company will install solar panels on two Bedford County schools. It also helped a Richmond homeless shelter reduce its energy costs by going solar. Virginia Beach students created light displays “powered by solar panels and [a] wind turbine.” “More than 80 students from five public school divisions in Virginia gave topics, “including students from Augusta County.

In Virginia, shared, or community, solar allows eligible residents of multi-family buildings and those who cannot install their own solar to subscribe to utility and 3rd party developer programs. However, “Shared solar launches in Virginia but still faces an uphill battle.” “Dominion Energy is demanding that a planned 1.2-megawatt community solar project pay to install a high-speed fiber optic line between the array and the nearest substation, which the developer says will increase costs by about 50%.”

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) “effectively signed off on an agreement Dominion reached this fall with the Virginia attorney general and other parties, in which the company agreed to implement several consumer protections in connection with the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project.” Not everyone applauded the SCC’s action. A blogger asked “Why does Dominion fear a wind output promise?” Another argued that “Dominion’s Wind Gamble Could Cost Customers.” Another made a case that “Dominion’s Planned Offshore Wind Farm Need Not – and Must Not – Be Built Where Planned.” Dominion has filed a request with the SCC for a rate surcharge for its off-shore wind project. The federal government advanced Virginia’s off-shore wind projects. Meanwhile, “Plans for Botetourt County [on-shore] wind farm [are] moving along – although slowly.”

A Canary Media chart detailing the largest electricity source in each state showed that “In 12 U.S. states last year, the largest source of electricity generation was zero-carbon — wind, hydropower or nuclear.” Virginia was not among the 12; its largest source was fossil gas. The Governor proposed “a $10 million investment in the upcoming budget to turn Virginia into a leader in energy innovation …. [He announced] ‘With technologies like carbon capture and utilization, and resources like critical minerals, hydrogen, and nuclear, we will make Virginia the epicenter for reliable and affordable energy innovation’.”

The Governor and nuclear proponents want Southwest Virginia to be the site of a small modular nuclear reactor but critics, including area residents, want to be informed and consulted about such a project. Some experts say the project is doable with necessary approvals in place. Several start-ups are working on ways to demonstrate feasibility. A Lynchburg company started “production of a type of nuclear fuel, fuel, called TRISO, [that] will power the first micro reactor built and operated in the United States…. {The company believes such fuels will be] used for a variety of new technologies, including micro reactors that provide clean energy to remote communities, or areas recovering from natural disasters.” Virginia Tech nuclear researchers received a federal grant to “work to improve computer models that are used to study the safety of nuclear power plants.” “Dominion Energy plans to deploy small modular nuclear reactors statewide by 2032 … [and] is evaluating several sites in Southwest Virginia, including retired fossil fuel plants and former coal mines. Appalachian Power Company says it’s also looking at the new nuclear technology.” Politically, current activities show that there is international interest in nuclear energy on both the right and the left.

Southwest Virginia may become a hub for numerous research and development activities and job opportunities, including “The Energy Discovery, Education, Learning & Technology Accelerator, or DELTA, Lab… in Wise County”; the “Energy Storage and Electrification Manufacturing (ESEM) jobs project” in Tazewell County; numerous projects funded by the recently passed federal 2023 funding bill; and hydrogen research, including a green hydrogen project in Buchanan County.

Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), Biogas, and Extraction/Mining

Republican legislators introduced pipeline permitting reform bills in both houses of Congress to “create regulatory certainty for natural gas pipeline construction and approve Mountain Valley Pipeline completion.” In response, “more than 40 environmental and advocacy groups called for a “fair and open” review of the pipeline’s plan to cross the Jefferson National Forest.” Senator Manchin’s [and others’] efforts to speed up the energy permitting process (and thereby facilitate if not guarantee the completion of the MVP), will likely continue in 2023 despite the lack of success in 2022. “The U.S. Forest Service[, under a court order to produce a ‘ Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement before a final statement next summer’,] has proposed new construction guidelines that, if adhered to, would enable the 303-mile intrastate natural gas pipeline to traverse a 3.5-mile section of the Jefferson National Forest in Giles and Montgomery counties, the project’s final missing link.”

“Utility executives said they have plenty of opportunity to invest in renewable natural gas, or RNG, supply projects, even as major energy and investment companies continue to acquire RNG developers.” Dominion Energy “invested in … [RNG] projects at dairy and swine farms and sees the opportunity to add to its project pipeline.” Roanoke Gas Company seeks “to partner with a western Virginia wastewater plant to capture, treat, and deliver biogas to local customers. Environmental groups have objections to how the deal is structured ….”

“A Canadian company has bought interest in the uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County and has set its sights on overturning the state’s moratorium on uranium mining. Experts say the risks are real, but some can be mitigated with modern technology.” “Southside legislators said there’s little local enthusiasm for overturning the moratorium ….” 

“The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is working towards the answer [to the question ‘Might there be Gold in Virginia hills’]. Virginia Tech faculty members … were part of a 13‑person technical team convened by NASEM to provide their subject‑matter expertise to produce “The Potential Impacts of Gold Mining in Virginia” report ….” Two of the conclusions:

  1. “Virginia’s laws and regulations currently … are not up to the task of minimizing the risks to Virginia’s communities and environment …. [The] report points to opportunities to strengthen these systems to minimize risk of harming water resources, ecosystems, and human health….”
  2. “The most effective way to minimize potential impacts from gold mining is to begin with a cradle‑to‑grave approach that considers all aspects of exploration, development, mining, remediation, closure and long-term monitoring from the very earliest stages and, importantly, solicits and includes input from all stakeholders involved ….”

The study was done pursuant to legislation; one question is “What happens next?Buckingham County formed a commission to recommend what its next steps will be, possibly addressing whether the county should ban gold mining there.

Transportation

“A representative state survey released last week found 55% of Virginians are likely to consider buying an electric vehicle (EV). In January, however, the key policy that gives Virginians’ more access to EVs may be in jeopardy. [An opinion writer noted that] Unfortunately, bills have been filed to repeal the Clean Car standards in the upcoming Virginia General Assembly.” However, “With higher gas prices, electric vehicles [are] surging in popularity with buyers.” The town of Stanley recently installed its first EV charging station at a local park. Loudoun County is planning to “acquire [a] low-to-zero emissions … fleet.” “As more transit agencies in Virginia roll out electric buses to reduce environmental impacts, the need to recharge those buses throughout the day remains a chief concern.”

Richmond’s Pulse has driven its way to becoming one of the most successful bus rapid transit services in the country. Now transportation leaders from as far away as Ohio, Maryland and Florida are taking notice…. [P]assengers are turning to rapid transit services due to their frequent stops and reliability compared to buses.” Blacksburg’s town council voted to provide free bus service to all riders. But the Roanoke Valley’s Metro system cannot afford to do so without “new funding or significant budget cuts.” DC eliminated Metrobus fares starting next summer, but Virginia riders from DC may continue paying them. “Virginia transit officials say state law and regulations effectively prohibit the state from eliminating Metrobus fares for riders in the commonwealth, but legislative changes could alter that.”

Climate and Environment

“An innovative new technique to assess the health of fish population that set lower triggers for catch quotas has found that menhaden — probably the most controversial catch in Virginia — are doing even better than expected. As a result, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission increased its coastwide quota for menhaden by 20%, while leaving its cap on the Chesapeake Bay catch at 51,000 metric tons.

A recent study by the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Virginia Tech showed there is “Money in [Virginia’s] water: Virginia seafood industry [is] worth billions, supports thousands of jobs.” A recent Chesapeake Bay Foundation study reported “good news” for the Bay: “Dead zones are shrinking, but [there’s] still a long way to go.” “The Chesapeake Bay watershed in Virginia will be supported by more than $13 million in grant awards for restoration and conservation…. Awarded through the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grant Program (INSR) and the Small Watershed Grants (SWG) Programs, core grant programs of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program partnership that are administered under NFWF’s Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund (CBSF), the award include $15 million provided through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds, the first set of awards from the infrastructure funding. Funding will also be provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and private funding by Altria Group, Zoetis, and Astra Zeneca. Additional funding will come from the Bezos Earth Fund.” Total funding will be over $26 million. The Governor proposed setting “aside historic funds [$685 million in the biennial budget] for conservation and preservation … [and] for resiliency and the Chesapeake Bay.”

Thanks to “legislation passed earlier this year allowing Virginia’s state and federally recognized tribes to receive grants from VLCF, one of the state’s premier sources of conservation money, funded through the budget,” “two tribes were awarded grants directly from the … VLCF to acquire and preserve forestlands for the first time. The grants will only cover a portion of the cost of the land acquisitions and will be available to the tribes for two years.”

“Five localities receive[d] funds [from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Office of Farmland Preservation] to place working farmlands, forests under conservation easements.” “The General Assembly’s passage of full funding for agricultural best management practices is a historic decision for farmers…. From July 1, 2022 through June 30, 2024, $295 million will be allocated in Virginia’s budget for aid farmers in implementing conservation practices.”

Check out…

Why not…

  • Sign up to lobby your legislators on Virginia Conservation Network’s Our Common Agenda this coming session? Join the Virginia Conservation Network and hundreds of fellow environmental advocates on Tuesday, January 31st, 8 am to 1 pm in Richmond for its annual Conservation Lobby Day. Register here.
  • Join Earthjustice for its Climate Action Party: Food Justice Webinar, Jan. 12, 7 pm? Learn how climate-concerned citizens can urge government leaders to help accelerate the transition to a more just and sustainable food system. The featured guest Peter Lehner will spotlight opportunities for climate activists to advocate for policymakers to use the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Farm Bill, Inflation Reduction Act, and SEC regulations to drive even faster, systemic change in the ways we produce our food. Register here.
  • Learn about three ways to receive tax credits for going green in 2023, thanks to federal funding under the Inflation Reduction Act?
  • Gain some insights into how SustainFloyd takes small steps by “Thinking Globally [and Acting Globally in Floyd Virginia”?
  • Read this story of Hog Island residents who moved to the mainland to retreat from the rising seas, only to find those seas have followed them?
  • Try washing your clothes in cold water and wash them less frequently? Doing so will increase the life of the clothes and reduce environmental harms from the washing process.
  • Learn about Mountain Lake’s “mysterious” fluctuations that result in periods of low to no water.
  • Invite Songbirds to Your Winter Garden”?
  • Visit an “International Dark Sky” state or national park? Virginia has four, three relatively near the Central Valley. West Virginia has three parks with this designation. Before you go, learn “Why we need to make the world a darker place.”

The Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV) is a non-profit, grassroots group in the Central Shenandoah Valley that educates legislators and the public about the implications of the Earth’s worsening climate crisis.


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