Statewide environmental news roundup – May 2023

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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 energy 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.


Dominion issued its latest long-range Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). Governor Youngkin announced that the 2023 IRP “validates [his] energy plan released in October 2022….” The plan calls for “new gas plants [and] advanced nuclear [that Dominion said] will be needed to meet soaring demand.” “Renewables alone aren’t expected to meet a projected increase in demand for electricity in the coming decades, Dominion … said in [its] … filing …. That means the state’s largest electric utility may seek to keep most of its existing power stations online for decades to come and seek to build additional small natural gas and nuclear units.” A Dominion official “said Dominion expects to deploy 33,000 new megawatts of total generation in the next 25 years.” One critic concluded that the IRP “relies too much on fossil fuels.” An environmental advocacy group derided the “’unholy union between billionaire Governor Youngkin and Dominion’ … [as a] ‘corporate profit grab that would bankrupt Virginians and exacerbate climate change.’” A blogger wondered if Virginia would have “more nuclear power?” Another commentator reacted to the IRP this way: “Law? What law? Pandering to the governor, Dominion’s new plan ignores Virginia’s climate law. The energy giant’s IRP is a political document, not a serious approach to meeting Virginia’s electricity needs.” The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) said “The utility’s expanded reliance on fossil fuels stands out and works against the state’s requirements for reducing emissions as laid out in the Virginia Clean Economy Act.” Advanced Energy United echoed this view. Utility Dive pointed out that “Dominion Energy [IRP] projects adding up to 9 GW of new gas-fired capacity due to reliability concerns.”

The SCC has only one commissioner and two vacancies. The General Assembly, which has the responsibility to appoint, has failed to do so during the last two sessions. The reason is “political stalemate.” While complimenting the SCC staff, “The Virginia Ratepayer Protection Alliance, a group that includes Google, Amazon Web Services, the Virginia Manufacturers Association and the Virginia Poverty Law Center, told Virginia’s top lawmakers … that “these Commissioner seats have been vacant for too long.”

A “judge dismissed one of two lawsuits filed last fall in an effort to stop the 2,139-acre data center corridor proposed near the Manassas National Battlefield Park …, [a decision that] paves the way for the massive new data center development approved by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors last fall…. The [approved change to] … the county’s long-term plan … allow[ed] for up to 27 million square feet of data centers to be built on about 1,600 acres of once-protected agricultural land near the Manassas National Battlefield Park.” Discussions between the developer [Digital Gateway] and the county continue, with the latest “Digital Gateway plan [pitching] 28 to 34 data centers outside the Manassas battlefield. The July 2022 Prince William County “comprehensive plan amendment that would turn northern Prince William County into a massive data center amendment … depicted two large parks and hundreds of acres of green space as key to the project…. But [there are] no real plans for the parks. Instead, [the developer application] to rezone the land for data centers, the final step in the approval process …, made it clear that the big parks are not part of their projects at this point. Critics of the digital corridor see this as a betrayal.”

“As Northern Virginia continues to cement its position as a global base for data centers, Fairfax County leaders say the time has come to reevaluate the impact of the facilities and, potentially, set some boundaries for the future.Loudoun County is considering a way to “leverage its booming data center industry, located entirely in eastern Loudoun, to fund a large-scale land-preservation project in the rural west without any use of tax dollars…. The idea of paying landowners to agree to a permanent prohibition on development is not unknown to the area. Neighboring Fauquier County … has the largest purchase-of-development-rights program in the state, a tax-funded system in which the county government pays the owners of working farms to give up development rights. Fauquier has preserved more than 13,000 acres at a cost of $17 million…. [L]andowners in western Loudoun could give up permanently the right to develop 97,000 acres of land —… or roughly two thirds of the county’s land area — for a combined total of $1.9 billion, all paid by data center developers in exchange for larger or taller buildings in eastern Loudoun.” Illustrative of what may become more prevalent, “Amazon data centers [will] replace at least 11 Loudoun, Fairfax office buildings.”

As noted in last month’s Perspectives piece, President Biden’s Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm came out in favor of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). It may have been a political decision, given West Virginia’s Senator Manchin’s position and continuing efforts to “overhaul” the permitting process for this project. SELC expressed its “staunch opposition” to Manchin’s “permitting bill”, which “includes provisions to complete the Mountain Valley Pipeline and other polluting infrastructure that would put communities across the South and nationwide at risk.” There is at least some chance that the bill (and others) may advance in Congress. “The U.S. Forest Service … approved Mountain Valley Pipeline’s passage through the Jefferson National Forest through West Virginia and into Virginiadespite past federal appeals court rulings determining developers had ‘inadequately considered’ the project’s environmental impact.” “The federal agency issued a record of decision … approving amendments to its Land and Resource Management Plan to do so. The pipeline project still faces additional legal hurdles.” The New York Times called the permit “crucial.” “Environmental advocates like Wild Virginia Conservation Director David Sligh said … that the Biden administration is favoring fossil fuels even as it “claims to advance environmental justice.E&E News, Reuters, and Fox News also highlighted the Biden administration’s actions. Appalachian Voices is appealing the latest USFS decision.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) weighed in on the environmental impact of a proposed pipeline expansion in Hampton Roads, saying “they expect some, mostly short-term, environmental impacts from a proposed pipeline expansion that runs through Hampton Roads – but none that necessarily preclude it from moving forward…. The new environmental impact statement is a draft up for public review.” Local environmental groups and others oppose the project. A retired Army Corps of Engineers employee, citing the recent Ohio train derailment, argued that “Shutting down pipelines doesn’t magically make the transport of oil and gas less necessary. Communities rely on these resources, and limited pipeline access will lead to fuel being transported using less safe methods.”

As Virginia moves to pull out of carbon market [Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, RGGI], housing groups worry about funding loss. Millions in RGGI money has gone toward low-income energy efficiency projects since 2021…. [C]ommunity housing developers worry about the loss of the funding the program generates to upgrade existing homes and build entirely new ones that more efficiently consume energy…. How those funds will be replaced if Virginia withdraws from RGGI isn’t clear.”

A “2022 state law [appointed a stakeholder group] to determine whether it’s feasible for Virginia to set methane reduction goals and craft a plan to meet them. That group, which has held one meeting since the passage of the law and is expected to provide recommendations to the state Department of Environmental Quality for a report due July 1, stopped short of setting any specific reduction targets or defining what ‘feasible’ means. And while industry members argued Virginia regulations are unnecessary, environmental groups said state rules could fill in any gaps within federal proposals…. Methane, a primary component of natural gas, is the second most abundant greenhouse gas on the planet, behind carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Although not as prevalent as CO2, methane is 25 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere. As concern about climate change has grown, federal regulators have increasingly looked to reduce methane emissions.”

“Two years after a … 16 businesses [in and near Charlottesville] made carbon‑reduction pledges, 10 more firms have pledged some steps to reduce climate emissions by the joining the Green Business Alliance…. Susan Kruse — the director of the group that created the alliance, the Community Climate Collaborative — said that the first cohort of alliance signees pledged in 2021 to reduce their carbon emission 45% within five years…. ‘These founding members have … already achieved a 29% emission reductions in just two years,’ Kruse said [, adding that] the new cohort of 10 members has committed to reduce their emissions by 35% by 2027 … [and noting] that each member has also made an individual pledge to take action, ranging from a minimum of 30% and a maximum of 90%.”

Dominion Energy told the SCC it expects the number of EVs in Virginia to double by the end of 2024 and double again by 2026. “After five years, in 2027, Dominion expects there will be 220,000 electric vehicles in its Virginia and northeast North Carolina territory. It will mean a roughly six-fold increase in electricity usage, with EVs accounting for roughly 600,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year in 2027.” As increased EVs and more data centers increase the demand for electricity, “Dominion Energy is proposing to expand a program intended to incentivize customers to shift when they use electricity to lessen the load on the grid and cut down on their bills at the same time…. Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General, which advocates for utility ratepayers, is supporting the proposal but also calling for some changes to the program to ensure it provides customers sufficient benefits.”

Nuclear energy in Virginia continues to receive attention. This Canary Media podcast explores a future with more nuclear providing energy. In a series of posts, a blogger called attention to a “big market: industrial power plants independent of utilities and the grid (and thus not requiring State Corporation Commission approval.” He also reported on a new Westinghouse reactor that may be available by 2027. In addition, he responded to a reader’s question about nuclear power safety. And he discussed a two‑year old position paper on nuclear power by Bill Gates and current Energy Secretary Granholm. Additionally, he provided a response from Clean Virginia after he asked for their position. The response: “Clean Virginia recognizes SMRs as a nascent technology that has neither been fully tested nor proven to be cost‑competitive. Thus, it is our view that this technology warrants further study by the state. Specifically, we hope state agencies lead a process with stakeholder input to understand and research SMRs and other technologies like hydrogen to determine their viability and the pathways to deploy these technologies in the safest and most cost-effective way possible.” A study funded in part by the VA Department of Energy concluded that “Far Southwest Virginia is a ‘competitive hosting ground’ for small modular nuclear reactors.”

Support for solar over closed landfills is growing. A conservative Virginia organization, Energy Right, believes that, “As renewable energy reshapes the grid … it needs to be a winning proposition and developed the “right way” in rural Virginia, a magnet for solar companies seeking open expanses of land.” Virginia localities continue to wrestle with whether to approve so-called “large (or utility) scale solar farms”. In Dinwiddie County, NIMBY is a common reaction. Shenandoah County approved new rules governing such facilities. Isle of Wight County has recently received “an influx of proposals for new solar farms over the past two months. [They have] come as Isle of Wight supervisors [approved] an ordinance [imposing] a near-moratorium on solar development by capping the cumulative acreage of existing and proposed solar farms to 2% of the county’s “prime” farm soils, or a maximum of 2,446 acres.” A similar scenario is playing out in Louisa County. Chesapeake’s Planning Commission approved two “more proposed solar installations [for] southern Chesapeake, a trend that has been transforming acres of farmland in the city into renewable energy projects.” In Rockingham County, a 2,700 solar panel array “to produce renewable energy for the Massanutten Waterpark” will be up and running this fall, with more solar possible going forward. County supervisors turned down, for the second time, a proposed “19-acre solar energy farm to Honeysuckle Road in Elkton…. Removal of trees and stormwater run-off were two environmental factors brought up in the conversation.” Some Mecklenburg County residents have concerns about the cumulative effects of both solar farms and data centers “on the rural character of Southside’s farm[s] and timberlands and endangering the environment and its many historic, pre-historic and archeological features.”

USDA “announced the availability of nearly $11 billion in grants and loan opportunities that will help rural energy and utility providers bring affordable, reliable clean energy to their communities across the country.” The two programs — Empowering Rural America and Powering Affordable Clean Energy — present “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help combat the climate crisis while also enhancing Virginia’s rural quality of life,” said [the] USDA Rural Development Virginia State Director.”

Climate and Environment

“The Environmental Protection Agency … proposed a settlement with Virginia and several other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in a case alleging the agency failed to enforce bay cleanup efforts. Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C., filed suit in 2020, along with the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation…. Pennsylvania has consistently lagged behind the other states, though officials acknowledge no state is fully on track to meet the standards in two years…. Under the new settlement, the agency would step up its oversight of Pennsylvania’s efforts, including ensuring funding goes toward the most efficient actions and pursuing judicial enforcement when warranted. Federal officials would also agree to evaluate how each bay state fared in meeting the 2025 goals by the end of the following year.”

A new report finds rising sea levels in Chesapeake Bay will cost the surrounding regions jobs. The Resources for the Future report finds, in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay area, almost 180,000 — or 7.4% of jobs in the region — will be exposed to 100-year floods by 2050. In turn, this means $6.1 billion in wage income is at risk during the same period. Of Virginia’s 134 counties, 42 will be impacted by rising sea levels by 2050.”

Blue crab numbers are bouncing back from record lows, the latest count shows. But regulators are still feeling cautious because the number of juvenile crabs caught in this year’s Bay-wide Winter Dredge Survey remain low, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission said.” “The Striped Bass Management Board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is the body that oversees all fishing in state waters along the East Coast.” In response to the “unexpectedly heavy recreational catches in 2022 [that] raised alarms about whether the struggling Atlantic Coast population could rebound as hoped by the end of the decade, … [set a] new limit, which went into effect May 3 and will last through Oct. 28, [that] forbids recreational fishers in the Chesapeake Bay and along the coast from taking any striped bass more than 31 inches long….”

“New research out of Virginia Tech suggests officials need to start focusing more on … [the fact] that land in Hampton Roads is sinking at about twice the rate that waters are rising. The study, which calls the issue a “hidden vulnerability,” was published recently in the journal Nature Communications.

Roanoke is now a Bee City USA affiliate city. “Bee City USA was launched in 2012 with the goal of promoting healthy, sustainable habitats for bees and other pollinators. In 2022, Roanoke City Council voted to adopt a resolution proclaiming Roanoke as a Bee City USA. The goal of joining Bee City USA is to promote, protect, and provide support for our pollinators by providing healthy habitats free of pesticides, using native plants, and encouraging community participation.” “According to Lawn Love’s report 2023’s Best States for Beekeeping, the Commonwealth is the fifth best state for number of beekeepers associations and sixth best for number of honey suppliers.”

Shenandoah National Park [now has] nearly 1,000 acres at Tanner’s Ridge thanks to three families” in what may be the second-largest donation of land to a national park. These Page County woodlands are protected in perpetuity. “The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation has expanded Chestnut Ridge Natural Area Preserve by purchasing 775 acres of land.” “Funds for the latest acquisition were awarded through VOF’s Forest Community Opportunities for Restoration and Enhancement Fund, which was established to mitigate for forest fragmentation caused by the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”

Check out …

  • C3 Collaborative’s Webinar Series (details here)
  • The Dirt on Composting: Why At-Home Composting is a Climate Solution Wednesday, May 31 at Noon. Register here.
  • Solar Webinar for Businesses on Wednesday, June 14 at Noon. Explore the benefits of solar energy and gain the knowledge and tools you need to make the switch for your business.
  • Before You Go Solar: Tips for Homeowners on Wednesday, June 28 at Noon (tentative). Learn how to get your home solar-ready.
  • Blue Ridge PRISM’s Spring/Summer Invasive Plant Program, June 9, 10 am – I pm, at Rockfish Valley Trail, Nellysford, fee $25. Participant limit is 25. Register here.
  • “The best picnic spots in the D.C. area, according to park rangers.”
  • JMU’s Edith J. Carrier Arboretum’s free Summer Brown Bag Lecture series on Wednesdays at noon May – July. Bring your lunch and enjoy a new guest speaker each week. Details here.
  • Virginia Science Museum’sThe Green”, in Richmond.  It’s “a former parking lot turned several‑acre urban greenspace, right in the middle of the city [on Broad Street,] featuring native trees, lighted walking paths, benches, public art and more.”

Why not …

  • Attend this Virginia League of Conservation Voters’ virtual training session Wednesday, May 31, 6 – 7pm? One of the fastest ways we can fight climate change is by pushing the EPA to update rules regarding pollution so they can take stronger actions to protect our planet. Learn exactly how the executive rulemaking process happens and draft your own comment in support of stronger regulation of carbon pollution. Register here.
  • Learn about Virginia Tech’s Virginia Big Trees program? VT “maintains a list of state champions for more than 300 species. ‘Many of these champion trees … [are] … oftentimes … located at places that have either cultural or historical significance.’”
  • Plant some native trees and take advantage of discounts offered by three participating nurseries through the Department of Forestry’s “Throwing Shade VA” program?
  • Visit the Natural History Museum’s “low-lit” exhibit, “Lights Out: Recovering Our Night Sky”? It purpose is to “illustrate what’s been lost as artificial illumination bleaches out the heavens. Most of the information presented is scientific, but the show also spotlights myth and lore.” See it by December 2025.
  • Read about details of environmentally friendly new Amazon headquarters complex in Arlington?

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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