Agencies | Governor
Virginia Regulatory Town Hall
Agency
Department of Environmental Quality
Board
Air Pollution Control Board
chapter
Regulation for Emissions Trading [9 VAC 5 ‑ 140]
Action Reduce and Cap Carbon Dioxide from Fossil Fuel Fired Electric Power Generating Facilities (Rev. C17)
Stage Proposed
Comment Period Ends 3/6/2019
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3/4/19  10:02 am
Commenter: Chris Bolgiano, Environmental Writer

Support and Beyond
 

I support DEQ’s revised proposal to link to RGGI to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants, and also commend the reduction of the initial cap from 33/34 million tons to 28.  However, the RGGI rules have important gaps that can and should be addressed by DEQ outside of this proposal because these gaps undermine the entire purpose of curtailing CO2 emissions.

1.Methane. To some considerable degree, RGGI’s success in reducing CO2 emissions has resulted from utilities switching from coal/oil to natural gas obtained through fracking.  As an environmental writer, I have researched fracking and visited a fracking center in WV.  It is a well-established fact that methane released during production and transport of fracked gas seriously undermines the beneficial effect of CO2 reductions.  So while I commend DEQ’s formation of an “ad hoc work group of stakeholders to develop a framework for limiting methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure … to inform the regulation development process,” as stated in DEQ’s Dec. 3, 2018 posting at http://townhall.virginia.gov//l/ViewNotice.cfm?GNID=920, it is a great disappointment to find that out of a total of 9 members appointed to this group, 5 are industry reps. Given Gov. Northam’s support for Dominion and its pipelines, even at the expense of environmental justice considerations at Union Hill, it seems unlikely that serious methane regulations will come out of this group. 

2.Auctions.  DEQ personnel have stated that the auction of allowances must be revenue neutral, called a consignment auction, to avoid having to seek approval from the General Assembly.  I understand that DEQ is constrained by climate science deniers in the General Assembly from proceeding in the most rational manner, which would be simply to join RGGI and receive the substantial revenues each RGGI state receives from sale of allowances and applies to climate change mitigations.  A consignment auction involves the state giving allowances to utilities, which can then sell them in RGGI auctions and use that money either to upgrade equipment and invest in renewables to meet the emissions caps, or but allowances.  Electricity rates have fallen in RGGI states even as they have risen in other states, and most models indicate the same will happen in VA. While this seems to be good for consumers, it functions as a perverse incentive in that it does not motivate consumers to reduce use of electricity, such as through purchase of energy efficient products.  I concur with the April 9, 2018 comments of Dallas Burtraw of Resources for the Future, in response to DEQ’s initial proposal, that Virginia should consider alternatives to returning the value of consigned allowances to the rate base. In addition, energy efficiency is known to be the least expensive but highest impact approach to energy conservation, but Virginia does little to nothing on this issue.  If Virginia is serious about addressing climate change, it must find ways to invest in energy efficiency programs especially for low income households. The state should also make a major commitment to help state and county jurisdictions purchase solar panels for on-site generation and use in government buildings, school systems, prisons, etc. Even Dominion now concedes that solar is the cheapest energy source.  

 3.Forests.  RGGI rules allow for a small percentage of emissions to be offset by carbon credit purchases elsewhere, including forest carbon, but it has not to date authorized a forest carbon offset credit sale, largely due to the very low RGGI price compared to the CA market, which has authorized millions of dollars in forest carbon offsets. While the DEQ proposal will accept offsets from other RGGI states, the omission of VA offsets in this plan is an extremely serious oversight.  As both an environmental researcher and a forest owner, I have read many peer-reviewed scientific papers showing that carbon sequestration by forests is the single best natural defense against climate change and capable of significantly reducing atmospheric CO2 if conservatively managed (I will be happy to share such papers).  VA is 62% forested, the vast majority of which is privately owned, which is being converted to other uses at the average rate (as stated by the VA Dept. of Forestry) of 16,0000 acres/year, mostly to development. 

Logging is a major disruptor of forests, causing large emissions of CO2 particularly in disturbance and compaction of soil, the largest carbon pool, and it removes the oldest and largest trees by conventional high-grading or diameter limit cutting. What’s left are diseased, damaged, and poorly growing trees and the least desirable species. High-grading and diameter limit cutting have been the bane of sustainable forest management for decades yet continue to degrade most eastern woodlands, already degraded by extremely destructive, wide-spread logging a century or so ago.  It has been proven that the older a tree gets, the more carbon it sequesters and stores in soil, but the trees remaining after conventional logging are younger, less thrifty and less capable of sequestering CO2.  The harvested stand will require decades to a century to approach the carbon sequestration strength before logging – yet there is no mechanism to protect this land from future logging or development during that time.  Therefore, it can hardly be said that conventional logging is sustainable.

4.Biofuel. Using forests for biofuel is in direct contradiction to managing for carbon. Currently, 4 Dominion and one Northern VA Electric Coop utilities burn approx. 2,637,000 tons of woody biomass annually.  I understand that RGGI rules, and the DEQ proposal, cover only utilities that burn more than 50% fossil fuels.  But DEQ’s statement that it has evaluated “the 5 potentially affected biomass-fired facilities in Virginia and determined that those facilities would not qualify as CO2 budget sources” (p. 69 of Form: TH-02 August 2018) does not reflect the fact that Dominion’s VA City Hybrid Energy Center burns at least 70% coal, according to Dominion’s own website.  It is unclear why this plant is not listed as qualifying as a CO2 budget source.  Because of the critical importance of forests in climate change mitigation to the state of Virginia, the exclusion of biofuel as a CO2 source is a critical gap.  In addition, the largest wood pellet industry in the world across the southeastern U.S. is now moving into VA with at least 2 plants that export some 600,000 metric tons a year to Europe.  This represents a tremendous threat to the capacity of VA forests to sequester carbon, especially if – as widely reported in other states – whole trees are being harvested, not only slash. 

Remarks by forest industries on biofuels in comments #67 and #68 (Form: TH-02 August 2018) to the initial DEQ proposal fundamentally misrepresent forest processes and carbon sequestration. No calculations are given to prove the contention that CO2 emitted from VA forestry operations are offset by forest growth, which is unlikely given the facts cited above about forestry practices, time necessary for recapture, and lack of forest protection.  The loss of 16,000 forested acres a year negates the statement that strong wood markets preserve forests.  In the last 2 years, hundreds of forestry scientists have written open letters to legislators in the U.S. and European Union, and to members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to refute the claim that biofuel is carbon neutral and to warn that harvesting wood for burning threatens both the world’s carbon cycles and biodiversity (and again, I will be happy to share those letters and peer-reviewed scientific papers).  And while it is true that logging residues left in the forest will give off CO2 during decay, these are branches and twigs that have relatively little carbon compared with the trunk, but, as various scientists point out, they do contain essential micronutrients and removing them impoverishes the soil, depletes wildlife habitat, removes barriers to deer browsing on new tree sprouts, and leads to less productive growth in the future and thus less C sequestration. 

To be serious about addressing climate change, Virginia should work with the Dept. of Forestry to  find ways, either market-based or through regulation, to stop the annual loss of forests, and further to incentivize private forest owners, especially the small acreage owners that comprise a majority of forest owners, toward better forestry practices that preserve and enhance carbon pools instead of depleting them.  Possibilities include mitigation banking at full level for trees lost during land conversion, facilitating the aggregation of smaller acreages for carbon offset sales, carbon accounting methods applied before harvesting, emphasizing production of high quality durable wood products instead of impermanent products such as paper, which can be much more efficiently and abundantly made from hemp, and a forest conservation act such as the update Maryland is considering to its earlier law.

5.Environmental Justice.  I commend and support DEQ’s inclusion of an environmental justice component in its proposal.  However, Gov. Northam’s behavior in manipulating the vote for Dominion’s compressor station at Union Hill does not build confidence in the state’s commitment. I concur with the points made by the Virginia Advisory Council on Environmental Justice in comments #54-59 to the initial proposal.  Please clarify the intent and methods of this component and what strength any findings will have to affect the actual outcome of DEQ decisions.

6.Beyond Power Plants. While DEQ is taking a good first step to reducing CO2 emissions by power plants, there are many other industries that also emit significant quantities of CO2, for ex., concrete factories.  I urge DEQ to review CA’s Air Resources Board approach to all CO2 emitters and work toward including them in a future plan, but not too far in the future as the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly severe.

Chris Bolgiano, Environmental Writer, Fulks Run, VA 22830