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Youngkin backs off plan to use executive power to remove Virginia from RGGI

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At the Capitol on Saturday, Glenn Youngkin became Virginia’s 74th governor. Winsome Earle-Sears and Jason Miyares were installed as lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin backed off his pledge to try to remove Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative through “executive action,” saying in his executive order Saturday that he wants a state regulatory board to do it.

Even that would be illegal, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville.

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2020 to join the program, in which energy producers in a number of states trade emission reductions for credits, or buy credits to emit carbon dioxide past a cap.

The revenue the state gets from the program is directed to programs that help low-income people reduce energy usage — thereby lowering their cost of electricity — and for programs combating sea level rise in coastal areas.

Youngkin has called the program a tax and said it’s not good for business or electricity ratepayers, while Democrats say the program is raising important money to fight climate change.

Youngkin said in December that he would use executive power to remove Virginia from RGGI.

Last week, then-Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, issued an opinion saying that wouldn’t be legal. Apparently acknowledging that he can’t do it, Youngkin’s executive order No. 9 called on an emergency regulation to go before the State Air Pollution Control Board for consideration.

“Since Virginia’s participation in RGGI is required by law, it cannot be repealed through regulation alone, whether labeled as ‘emergency’ regulation or otherwise,” said Nate Benforado, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The governor’s order expressed concern about the cost of RGGI on customers.

“Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) risks contributing to the increased cost of electricity for our citizens. Virginia’s utilities have sold over $227 million in allowances in 2021 during the RGGI auctions, doubling the initial estimates. Those utilities are allowed to pass on the costs of purchasing allowances to their ratepayers.”

Youngkin’s office downplayed his change in tone.

Press secretary Macauley Porter said: “The Governor-elect promised he would remove RGGI because of the unfair burden it places on Virginia taxpayers. On Day One, he issued an executive order to do just that.”

The SELC acknowledged the law is raising millions of dollars but said it is for an important cause.

The RGGI “has brought in millions of dollars that are being deployed across the Commonwealth to help communities deal with flooding and to lower energy bills for Virginians who need it most,” a statement said.

“The General Assembly gets to decide the laws in Virginia, and the Executive Order — which asks state officials to develop an illegal repeal — is a dead end.”

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pwilson@timesdispatch.com; (804) 649-6061; Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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