Courtesy of US Environmental Protection Agency

The Lure Of Federal Money Is Too Strong For Virginia & Youngkin To Pass Up

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The Climate Pollution Reduction Grants (CPRG) program provides $5 billion in grants to states, local governments, tribes, and territories to develop and implement ambitious plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful air pollution. Authorized under Section 60114 of the Inflation Reduction Act, this two-phase program provides $250 million for noncompetitive planning grants, and approximately $4.6 billion for competitive implementation grants. That is what is technically known in the arcane world of policy initiatives as a “lot of cashola.” Virginia has signaled that it wants a piece of the pie.

Virginia is currently in the grip of a dyed-in-the-wool Republican governor, but nevertheless, the state and many of its cities and towns have submitted applications to the EPA to receive some of that lovely federal money, much to the chagrin of oil and gas companies that want to continue polluting the environment with their climate altering products. The EPA will start distributing the money this October and expects 45 states and dozens of metropolitan statistical areas to apply.

Virginia is putting itself forward in the competition by seeking millions of dollars in federal funds for state and local government programs to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases. The state outlined its most urgent emissions reduction strategies in a Priority Climate Action Plan submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in March. It is requesting funding in three specific areas:

  • Commonwealth Agencies — Virginia Port Authority, Virginia Energy, Virginia Department of Transportation, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Virginia Department of Workforce Development and Advancement, Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Department of Forestry, and Department of Wildlife Resources.
  • Metropolitan statistical areas and tribes in Virginia: Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the Monacan Indian Nation, and PlanRVA.
  • Other stakeholders: Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, multiple Virginia municipalities and communities, states with common priorities for GHG reductions, citizens of Virginia, industry, non governmental organizations, and other stakeholders.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality solicited public feedback about the action plan, which signals Virginia’s intent to electrify transportation, building and industrial sectors, for six months prior to its submission to the EPA.

Accelerating The Clean Energy Transition In Virginia

The nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center described the state’s priorities as accelerating Virginia’s clean energy transition. “We’re targeting real climate solutions that are going to make progress in Virginia,” Garret Gee, a senior attorney with SELC, told Inside Climate News.

The scope and ambition of some of the PCAP proposals made by Virginia may surprise those who witnessed Glenn Youngkin balk at the state’s participation in a regional interstate program designed to reduce emissions and generate funds to address local climate change risks. Under pressure from the governor, Virginia dropped out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, prompting state lawmakers this year to include participation as part of their budget proposal.

Youngkin now appears eager for tax money from the federal government to be directed toward climate change and particularly for the industrial, building, and transport sectors. “I can’t speak for the governor, but I think the goal here is to purely bring dollars to Virginia for any kind of project,” Gee said. “It’s a good thing they’re chasing the federal dollars.”

Virginia Is Focused On Big Targets

Virginia’s PCAP is mainly focused on big targets, notably emissions that can be cut through changes to their business practices by industrial and transportation companies. DEQ laid out 10 “measures” of action that the state may pursue with CPRG funding. Among them are state subsidies for electric vehicles, increasing bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, developing renewable energy for home and business use, and reducing “high-potency” greenhouse gases like methane from the industrial sector.

This was “definitely the direction we hoped they would go,” Gee said. “Diverting emissions from the atmosphere now has a bigger impact than doing so five years from now.” Gee, who specializes in transportation policy, said he hopes electric bike rebate programs, expansion plans for bus networks, and projects that would improve access to install more electric vehicle chargers in rural areas will be in Virginia’s final CPRG application. But with so many different sectors in need of funding, Gee said it is unlikely every worthy proposal will receive federal money.

One of the best parts about the federal funds, according to Gee, is that they stimulate and support plans that states, cities, counties and tribes are primed to put into action. Communities across Virginia — including Richmond and the greater D.C. area — wrote their own PCAPS, and those plans were included in the state’s PCAP. Each community will also submit separate applications to the EPA for CPRG funding. Gee said planners should ensure that “disadvantaged communities have a seat at the table to figure out what types of projects are built and also to make sure that those are projects that actually serve the community.”

The EPA required PCAPs to analyze how reducing pollution and greenhouse gases would benefit “low income, disadvantaged communities,” of which there are 2,169 such census tracts in Virginia. Officials in Richmond, which contains several such communities and plans to submit a CPRG application, say the fund has the potential to transform local quality of life.

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Richmond Has Big Plans

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Nicole Keller, a resilience planner with PlanRVA, the organization that submitted the greater Richmond area’s plan. “Transportation is by far the largest piece of the emissions pie,” and consequently the region’s biggest focus, she said.

PlanRVA is seeking to create electric vehicle incentives, expand and create better access to local routes, and urge lawmakers to adopt land use policies that would “encourage development near high capacity transit stations and within activity centers,” she said. Compared with other regions in Virginia, Richmond and its surrounding communities lack well connected bike lanes, she added. Keller also said that federal funds could cover the cost for Richmond to tally emissions in its transportation, building, industrial, waste, and municipal sectors — something other metro areas in the state have accomplished.

PlanRVA believes the funds could help remedy decades of pollution in communities that have been disproportionately saddled with power plants and other industrial operations. “So many things go back to racism and de facto practices,” Keller said. “Our localities are really dedicated to reversing decades of unjust development patterns.”

Both the state plan and local initiatives propose steering money to reduce fugitive emissions such as methane from oil and gas well pads and other areas of the industrial sector. As part of its submission to the EPA, the Virginia DEQ proposed capturing and limiting methane emissions and bolstering the state’s waste-to-energy systems at wastewater treatment plants.

Oil & Gas Interests Are Dismayed

Nevertheless, local oil and gas companies and the Virginia Oil and Gas Association were unhappy at the enhanced focus on renewable energy measures. They claimed the DEQ was abandoning Youngkin’s “all of the above” energy approach which favors expanding renewables and continuing to rely on lower carbon energy sources like natural gas.

In written statements submitted during the DEQ review, the fossil fuel companies complained that powering the state’s industrial sector with renewable energy and incentivising commercial and residential buildings to electrify was impractical and contrary to an “all of the above” energy approach.

Electrifying industrial processes “is not possible for energy intensive sectors that require immediate, high thermal heat,” the Virginia Manufacturers Association said in its written comment. It called natural gas “an essential fuel for electricity generation and reliable energy storage, which helps minimize the risk of power disruptions during periods of peak demand.” Generating natural gas in the US “is a national and economic security imperative,” the association said.

Virginia Oil and Gas Association, an industry group that represents fossil fuel companies in the region, wrote that it had “significant concerns” with proposals to reduce emissions in Virginia’s building and industrial sectors. “The most affordable way for a home and businesses to heat their property is with natural gas equipment,” it said in its submitted comment. The group is apparently blissfully unaware that industrial scale heat pumps are now available and that process heat for industry is also the subject of a major federal government funding initiative.

Columbia Gas of Virginia, a company that provides natural gas from Allegheny to Chesterfield counties, said in its comment that natural gas “will and must play an important role in Virginia’s energy future,” and said that fossil fuel could help the state meet its decarbonization goals. The company “​​opposes policy that forces fuel switching, including electrification, on our customers especially when it leads to higher energy costs and a less reliable and resilient energy system,” it said. In other words, it is basically opposed to decarbonization in any form, which by definition means transitioning away from burning fossil fuels.

DEQ noted that the purpose of its PCAP was “to provide an umbrella so that the widest possible range of [greenhouse gas] reducing projects could be eligible for implementation funding.” The state is still committed to an “all of the above” energy strategy, it said in written responses to public comments.

Benefits Will Happen For Virginia Even If Grants Are Denied

Virginia’s proposals are part of a competitive process and no federal money is guaranteed, but that doesn’t make it a zero-sum game for the participants. “Even if we don’t get an implementation grant fund, this plan does not go on a shelf,” Keller said. “It is really going to help influence the agenda for our work going forward. It’s really important they get the details right,” Gee said about all the local entities seeking funds. Their plans will serve as a “more complete picture of the way Virginia thinks about the clean energy transition.”

In other words, the state and local communities will benefit if they adjust their focus to making reductions in greenhouse gas emissions possible. Call it a consciousness raising exercise, one in which everyone benefits.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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