Environmentalists bristle at early Youngkin moves
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has teed up a series of battles with activists and the state senate’s Democratic majority over environmental policy in his first month in office.
Youngkin placed little emphasis on energy and environmental policy on the campaign trail, focusing largely on educational issues and COVID-19 restrictions.
But even before his inauguration, Youngkin raised eyebrows among environmentalists.
He announced plans on Dec. 8 to withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), an 11-state compact that requires power plants to buy credits to offset carbon emissions. Virginia had entered the group in 2021.
Youngkin has decried RGGI as a carbon tax passed on to consumers and vowed to unilaterally exit the agreement.
“Simply stated, the benefits of RGGI have not materialized, while the costs have skyrocketed,” Youngkin’s order states.
Youngkin’s nomination of former Trump Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler as the state’s secretary of natural resources also raised hackles.
Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, rolled back a number of environmental regulations as EPA chief and backed a rule that would only allow the agency to use scientific studies that make raw data publicly available.
Youngkin was initially seen as an underdog in a state that voted for President Biden by 10 points and had seen eight years of Democratic governors, giving the party a state government trifecta in 2019.
On the campaign trail, the first-time candidate emphasized his business experience and, despite accepting former President Trump’s endorsement, kept him at arm’s length.
Youngkin “didn’t talk about the environment much at all for most of the campaign and I think there was hope … that maybe he was going to take more of a moderate approach in a fairly moderate state,” said Mike Town, executive director at the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
Kristin Davison, a vice president at the GOP consulting firm Axiom Strategies who served as an adviser to the Youngkin campaign, told The Hill his early moves are in keeping with his vows on the campaign trail.
“Lowering the cost of living was a critical component of Governor Youngkin’s campaign and Day One Game Plan. The average Virginian would save about $52.44 per year if Virginia left RGGI,” Davison told The Hill in an email.
The state utility, Dominion Energy, signed off on costs for participation in RGGI in in August, increasing customers’ January bills by an average of $2.39. After his inauguration, Youngkin signed an executive order directing the state’s Air Pollution Control Board to consider withdrawal. Since then, the utility has asked regulators for permission to withdraw the increase amid uncertainty.
“It is a tax on hard-working Virginians,” Davison wrote. “Virginians elected Governor Youngkin to deliver on his promises, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
That could be a factor in any number of decisions for Youngkin moving forward.
Virginia’s constitution limits governors to a single term, meaning he won’t be running for reelection in 2025.
If Youngkin ends up running for a Virginia Senate seat as a Republican, however, his views on climate change and health care and his ability to continue to win votes in Northern Virginia will be key.
A survey from Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling shared with The Hill showed Youngkin slightly underwater with voters two weeks into his term, and several communities in Northern Virginia have announced they will maintain mask mandates in schools despite Youngkin ordering an end to them.
The governor’s mansion is a frequent predecessor to a Senate seat in Virginia — Sens. Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D) are both former governors, as were former Sens. Chuck Robb (D) and George Allen (R).
Some anti-Trump conservatives have hailed Youngkin as a potential model for the future of the party in general, running on some of the same hot-button social issues that Trump frequently mined, but with an approach that appeals to rather than alienates suburban voters.
While Wheeler’s association with Trump may seem like a larger threat to this image, an RGGI pullout could carry its own political risks.
Forty-five percent of RGGI revenues are earmarked for flood preparedness, which polling indicates is a high priority among Virginians. In a May 2021 poll from Global Strategy Group, 60 percent of respondents said flooding and climate change are already having a major impact on the state.
In the same poll, 68 percent of voters and 70 percent of voters in coastal areas said addressing flood risks was either one of their top priorities or an important priority.
The communities potentially affected by reduced flooding preparedness could be among the coalition that won Youngkin the November election. Youngkin won the coastal communities of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach by 6 and 8 points, respectively, after both voted for Biden and for Youngkin’s predecessor, Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
It remains to be seen if political headwinds against Youngkin will grow stronger, but if his popularity continues to decline, it could give Democrats, who hold a single-seat majority in the state Senate, increased political will to resist him on environmental issues as well.
During the eight years before Youngkin took office, Town said, the state saw rapid progress on environmental issues after decades of almost constant divided government.
“In the last two years … we’ve been able to make significant progress on climate action,” Town said.
For example, in August 2020, Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which would require the state to achieve zero-carbon energy generation by 2050. The law would lead to the phasing out of the majority of coal-fired power plants in the state by 2024.
Environmental advocates, meanwhile, remain hopeful that Wheeler’s nomination will be defeated, but expressed doubt that its defeat would bridge the gap between them and Youngkin on environmental issues.
“Andrew Wheeler is a tool and Glenn Youngkin is the carpenter,” Town told The Hill, “and [Youngkin’s] intent is to dismantle the incredible environmental protections” implemented under Democratic governance.
“However, I hope that this governor recognizes that the Senate Democrats and the general populace in Virginia and the environmental community is going to stand strong and do everything possible to defend the progress we’ve had,” he added.
— Last updated at 9:52 a.m.