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Environmentalists blast Dominion’s response to energy plan

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RICHMOND, Va. — In an open letter to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a coalition of environmental activists and other community leaders said Tuesday that Dominion Virginia Power’s response to the federal Clean Power Plan is “fundamentally contrary” to President Obama’s goals of reducing carbon emissions and promoting renewable energy.

The letter is signed by about 50 individuals who represent organizations including the Virginia Chapter Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and the Richmond and Northern Neck chapters of the Citizens Climate Lobby.

“Never in history has a Virginia governor had greater authority, greater responsibility and a greater opportunity to combat harmful carbon pollution,” the letter states. “We implore you to deliver to the people of Virginia a Clean Power Plan that lowers carbon pollution and ensures the health and safety of Virginians for generations to come.”

Protesters gathered in front of the clock tower at the Capitol (Photo by Diana DiGangi)

Protesters gathered in front of the clock tower at the Capitol (Photo by Diana DiGangi)

Coincidentally, across Capitol Square, the General Assembly considered a bill that would restrict the governor’s authority for implementing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan in Virginia.

Amid partisan debate, the House of Delegates voted to move forward on a bill that could present a roadblock to implementing the Clean Power Plan. House Bill 2 would require approval from the General Assembly of the state’s response to the federal plan. Similar legislation, Senate Bill 21, is moving through the Senate.

If such legislation becomes law, the General Assembly would take precedence over the governor’s administration and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in approving the state’s implementation of the Clean Power Plan.

Support and opposition to HB 2 split along party lines. The bill’s sponsor – Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol – introduced entreated the legislative body to “get this particular piece of the puzzle right.” He argued the measure would ensure a balance between encouraging economic vitality and reducing fossil fuel energy sources.

Republican sentiment largely followed suit, with some lawmakers citing the State Corporation Commission’s estimate of a 40 percent increase in utility costs under the Clean Power Plan.

Other voices stressed the need to address the economic depression in southwest Virginia, a region with deep ties to the coal industry.

Across the aisle, Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, urged House members to reflect on the effects of carbon emissions on the environment. “Climate change is having an impact in our day-to-day lives,” Lopez said.

He said that HB 2 is a stalling tactic encouraged by special interests and that it infringes on the governor’s authority.

Del. Richard Sullivan, D-Fairfax, encouraged his colleagues to “embrace the energy revolution” by pointing to the growth of a renewable energy industry in bordering states including North Carolina and West Virginia.

The bill was engrossed after a contested vote. It will return to the House floor for its final reading soon. SB 21 is on a similar track to becoming law. That prospect has alarmed environmentalists.

“We absolutely support his (the governor’s) authority in this manner and are very concerned about the general lack of respect for the severity of the issue of climate change among the General Assembly,” said Kate Addleson, conservation director of the Sierra Club.

Addleson helped lead the efforts to draft and distribute the letter to the governor.

“Our concern is that Dominion Power has a great deal of influence over many of our politicians,” she said. “And we feel that that influence has been used to misinform many of our legislators about what the economic impacts of this new Clean Power Plan would be.”

Dominion Power denied the letter’s claims.

“Contrary to what the letter says, Dominion has not put forth a plan. It is clearly up to the state to develop a CPP implementation plan,” Dominion spokesman David Botkins stated in an email. “We are involved in a Department of Environmental Quality stakeholder’s group process working with the state as it determines its best path forward.”

Botkins said Dominion is worried that complying with the federal plan would cause big increases in consumers’ utility bills.

“Dominion supports an approach that builds on our cleaner power generation sources compared to our neighboring states and preserves our state’s key advantages of low customer rates and strong reliability while allowing for economic growth,” Botkins said.

But Addleson disputed that argument.

“Dominion always likes to say Virginia has some of the lowest energy rates in the country overall per megawatt hour, but what they don’t want to tell you is that Virginians actually pay some of the highest energy bills in the country … because we’re not implementing energy efficiency programs,” she said.

Diana Digangi and Grant Smith/Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.