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'The words are very clear' | Youngkin argues he can withdraw Virginia from RGGI under current law

While Youngkin says leaving the carbon emission reduction program via regulation is legal, Democrats and climate groups say the law requires Virginia to participate.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin reasserted his belief that he can withdraw the state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), an 11-state carbon emission reduction program, without a new law being passed.

The Republican governor briefly talked about RGGI during a stop in Virginia Beach Wednesday, days before the public comment period on his administration's proposed regulation to leave the program opens on Monday, Sept. 26.

RELATED: Youngkin admin seeks to withdraw Virginia from RGGI without new legislation

"From the authority of the governor in order to do this, the legislation that was passed authorized but did not mandate the Commonwealth of Virginia to be in a program like RGGI," Youngkin told 13News Now. "And the words are very clear: it authorized but did not mandate. In fact, it was a regulatory process that led us to RGGI."

The program — comprised of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia — puts a regional cap on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that will get stricter over time.

Power companies have to acquire allowances for every short ton of carbon dioxide they emit, which are distributed at quarterly actions. The proceeds go to energy-efficiency programs for low-income Virginians and the Community Flood Preparedness Fund.

The legislation inciting Virginia's entry into RGGI, the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, became law in 2020 and the state participated in its first auction in March 2021.

After winning the 2021 election, Youngkin has prioritized withdrawing Virginia from RGGI, claiming the program doesn't actually incentivize power companies to reduce emissions and acts as a tax on Virginians.

"RGGI was sold by Democrat leaders as a market-based incentive system in order to bring down greenhouse gas [emissions]," Youngkin said. "There's nothing market-based about it. There's no incentive."

As an example, he described the now-suspended Dominion Energy Rider RGGI, a fee that the company charges customers to recover costs related to the program, as "simply a tax on energy usage."

While Youngkin said he believes withdrawing using a regulatory process is "very much consistent" with state law, Democrats and environmental groups say the law actually requires Virginia to be a part of RGGI.

After the administration outlined the proposed regulation to the Air Pollution Control Board, Democratic state lawmakers wrote a letter on Sept. 8 explaining their disagreement.

The lawmakers wrote to the board that only a change in the law that "passes both chambers of the General Assembly and is signed by the Governor" can end the state's involvement in RGGI.

"No proposed regulation, emergency regulation, regulatory act, or any subsequent administrative process can remove Virginia from RGGI because our membership in RGGI is mandated by that law," they said in the letter.

The lawmakers also outlined the benefits of Virginia's participation in the program, including money raised for energy-efficiency programs and flood resilience, and a drop in emissions and electricity prices across RGGI states.

Youngkin told 13News Now that he supports directly funding programs that address the impacts of climate change, as opposed to using money raised in RGGI auctions.

"If we believe, and I do, that in fact funding is a good thing in order to promote resiliency and response to floods, then we should fund it directly," Youngkin said. 

He continued: "And by the way, I believe that, so what people will see is me advocating for that kind of funding directly, transparently. Not hidden in a tax buried in your utility bill, but in fact, a real effort to stand up for conservation, as opposed to something that was totally missold and misapplied."

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), a group advocating for climate change policies across the Southern U.S., also opposes Youngkin's efforts to leave the program, saying it's a good thing for Virginia.

"RGGI has a longstanding history of reducing emissions," SELC Senior Attorney Nate Benforado said. "It's already working in Virginia in just the first year of participating. Our emissions are starting to go down." 

Benforado also said the 2020 law specifically requires the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to issue the RGGI regulation and the DEQ director to sell the carbon emission allowances.

"These aren't options," Benforado said. "These are mandatory language, so the administration can't just delete a regulation that the law specifically required DEQ to issue."

The Virginia NAACP released a statement Friday calling on Youngkin to reverse course on withdrawing from the program.

"To remove Virginia from RGGI without an alternative plan, most importantly, funding source to help combat flooding, improve air quality, and help to lower high energy cost burdens for communities of low wealth is unimaginable and unjust," the organization wrote. "The Urgency is Now."

The organization said it wants Youngkin to work with communities to improve resiliency and promote energy efficiency improvements, particularly in vulnerable and marginalized communities.

Virginians can comment on the proposed RGGI withdrawal

The Youngkin administration submitted the proposal to the Air Pollution Control Board on Sept. 7 as a Notice of Intended Regulatory Action (NOIRA), a public notification that a regulatory change is being considered, along with a description of those changes.

After the NOIRA goes live on Monday, Sept. 26, a public comment forum will be open through Oct. 26 on the Virginia Regulatory Town Hall, an online portal where Virginians can share their thoughts.

The next step in the typical regulatory process is that the full text of the proposed regulation goes public, which is followed by at least 60 days of public comment. During this time, the proposal could change as people share their thoughts.

The last step is the final text of the proposed regulation going public, which comes with an explanation of any changes from the original proposal. The final adoption period lasts 30 days.

Benforado encouraged people who support Virginia staying in RGGI to get involved in the public comment process to make their voices heard.

"It's proven to reduce emissions, it is helping Virginians across the Commonwealth right now and I think the administration needs to know the public supports this program," Benforado said.

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