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Northam keeps GOP language intended to block participation in carbon cap-and-trade program

STERLING, VA - OCTOBER 30: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) attends a rally for Virginia State Senator and candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives Jennifer Wexton (D) at the Wexton campaign headquarters on October 30, 2018 in Sterling, Virginia. Candidate Wexton is in a close race with incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) for Virginia's 10th congressional district. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

RICHMOND, Va. — To the dismay of environmental groups, Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday signed a new state budget; choosing not to veto language aimed at blocking  Virginia from taking part in a carbon cap-and-trade program that would ultimately reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The decision muddles a recently approved regulation that enabled the state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a program that has reduced carbon emissions by more than 35 percent in participating states.

The cap-and-trade program works by putting limits on a state’s carbon emissions, establishing a market where states that do not meet the cap can trade emissions allowances to states that exceed it.

While the state regulators voted to join the program, Virginia Republicans introduced language to the budget that prevented the state from using funds to join RGGI.

In a letter to the General Assembly, Northam acknowledged that he was “extremely disappointed that the General Assembly included several provisions in the budget that will harm Virginians.”

Still, Northam chose to abstain from vetoing the language, opting instead to direct the Department of Environmental Quality to “identify ways to implement the regulation and achieve our pollution reduction goals.” Northam further resolved that he “will not be constrained by these provisions” as he develops a proposed budget for the fall.

At the beginning of his session, Northam outlined joining RGII as a legislative priority.

Environmental groups including the Sierra Club, National Resource Defense Council, and the Virginia League of Conservation voters denounced the decision, saying that Northam failed to live up to a promise to take climate change seriously.

When asked about the claim that Northam failed to live up to his promise, to the governor’s press secretary Alena Yarmosky said, “At this time, we do not see the need for costly, drawn-out litigation. The speedier remedy for these out-of-touch provisions is the election of Democratic majorities in November.” Yarmosky reiterated Northam’s statement that the budget’s language won’t impede his fall budget, writing that, “These measures will be addressed in his introduced budget later this year.”

All 140 seats of Virginia’s General Assembly seats are up for grabs this fall.

Press Secretary Yheskel Ofirah also noted that Northam has a history of using executive action to fight for climate change.

“There are several examples of the governor’s commitment to fighting climate change and protecting our environment over the course of the last year plus of the administration, not limited to but including executive action and legislative accomplishments like coal ash site closure this very session,” Ofirah said.

Republicans in Virginia’s legislature have opposed participation in cap-and-trade programs from the start, arguing that the regulations work as a tax, and resisting the Governor’s efforts to join without approval from the General Assembly.

“We should have a role,” Del. Charles Poindexter said last month. “We were elected to represent the people.”

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