By Corrina BeallLegislative and Political Director
The following Legislators made significant contributions to the protection of our air, water or land during the 2017 Legislative Session, earning a Legislative Award from the Virginia Chapter. Awards will be presented this summer at fundraisers for each of the seven legislators:
1. Senator Chap Petersen, Good Government Award
2. Senator Scott Surovell, Water Champion Award
3. Delegate Mark Keam, Energy Freedom Award
4. Senator Jennifer Wexton, Energy Freedom Award
5. Delegate Rip Sullivan, Legislative Leader Award
6. Senator Jeremy McPike, Environmental Justice Award
7. Delegate Kaye Kory, Environmental Justice Award
Senators Amanda Chase and Richard Stuart will be recognized for outstanding contributions on specific issues.
On June 1st, Susan Stillman, Susan Weltz, Robert Hamberger, Ivy Main and Corrina Beall presented a Good Government Award to Senator Chap Petersen (D-34) at his annual Young Lawyer’s Party. Senator Petersen showed remarkable leadership by proposing to repeal a statute enacted in 2015, which froze electric rates at levels that are designed to allow Dominion and Appalachian Power to over-collect money from customers. Virginians are now paying too much for their electricity because our largest utilities are earning unjustified profits. Petersen’s bill would have unfrozen utility rates, and allowed for base rate reviews for both utilities, ultimately resulting in lower electric bills and possibly a refund to consumers. Additionally, Petersen sponsored Senate Bill 1593, which would ban political contributions from regulated monopolies. Petersen's stand brought the issue of money in politics to the forefront, a focus that has spilled over into the gubernatorial race.
Senator Scott Surovell (D-36) introduced successful legislation this year to place a moratorium on coal ash disposal permits until the issue has been studied and information has been provided to the regulating entity, the Department of Environmental Quality. Senate Bill 1398 requires Dominion to assess a range of alternatives for disposing or recycling coal ash, the toxic byproduct of burning coal for electricity. Despite the dangers associated with coal ash, it remains both ever-present and under-regulated. Coal ash is the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States. Vast quantities of poorly-contained ash sit in numerous pits along many of the Commonwealth’s most prized rivers, including the James, the Clinch, and the Potomac Rivers. In many cases, coal ash disposal sites are located upstream from popular fishing, kayaking, and hunting destinations. The bill is an important step toward protecting every Virginian’s right to clean water.
At the Request of the Virginia Distributed Solar Collaborative Senator Jennifer Wexton (D-33) and Delegate Mark Keam (D-35) introduced companion legislation to establish community-owned renewable energy programs in Virginia with Senate Bill 1208 and House Bill 2112. Community-owned projects are not legal in Virginia, but could provide the option to power homes and businesses with clean energy for renters, apartment and condo dwellers, low-income families, and buildings that have unfavorable characteristics for on-site generation like deep shade. Development of wind or solar energy that provides power to multiple community members leverages an economy of scale to reduce the price for each individual customer. By owning or leasing the solar or wind system, each community member taking part in the project can reduce his or her utility bills.
Delegate Rip Sullivan (D-48) introduced a suite of bills on energy efficiency this year in addition to a bill to establish renewable energy property tax credits in Virginia, HB 1632. Sullivan’s bills include HB 1703 (energy efficiency goals), HB 1636 (adjusting energy efficiency programs’ criteria for approval by the SCC), and HB 1465. House Bill 1465, which will become law in July, requires the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME) to track and report on the state’s progress towards meeting its energy efficiency goal. Virginia has a voluntary goal, set in 2007, of reducing electricity consumption by 10 percent by 2022, and we are only a tenth of the way there. Despite the modesty of our goal, at our current pace we will not attain it. This legislation requires that the Governor, the General Assembly and the Governor’s Executive Committee on Energy Efficiency will receive an annual report on our progress. Sullivan’s bill will provide a tool to hold the Commonwealth accountable for reaching our energy efficiency goal, and increase government transparency.
Senator Jeremy McPike (D-29) and Delegate Kaye Kory (D-38) introduced Senate Bill 1359 and its companion House Bill 2089 which require every public school board in the state to adopt a plan to test for lead in each school’s drinking water. Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead poisoning, but often do not look sick. Lead in the body can cause brain damage and developmental problems including learning disabilities, impulsive behavior, poor language skills and memory problems. This bill will become law in July.
The following legislators acted on environmental issues during the 2017 Session and will receive special recognition for their leadership.
Since the first commercial oil well was drilled in 1896 in Virginia, it is estimated that seven thousand oil and gas wells have been drilled in the state. Until 1950, there were no permitting or environmental requirements of well operators-- and wells no longer in use were not plugged or closed, but simply abandoned. These abandoned wells and those which are abandoned by insolvent companies are called “orphan” wells. According to the latest state review of oil and natural gas environmental regulations, there are at least 130 orphaned wells in Virginia. Orphaned wells that predate regulation often go unnoticed because their locations were never recorded. According to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), the cost of plugging an orphaned well is between $50,000 and $60,000. It took fifteen years for DMME to accumulate sufficient funds to complete a project of plugging seven wells. Virginia’s orphan well program is funded by fees charged to well operators when they apply for a well site permit. The fee was set at $50 in 1990, and remained stagnant until this General Assembly Session. Senator Richard Stuart (R-28) introduced successful legislation Senate Bill 911 that will increase the fee from $50 to $200.
Senator Amanda Chase (R-11) was co-patron on Senate Bill 1398, a bill that would require a detailed assessment of each coal ash site’s conditions and closure options, so that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has the tools and information it needs before a closure method is approved. Chase raised the profile of this issue and rallied support around this measure, and after a weakened version of the bill passed in both chambers, she pushed for the Governor strengthen the bill by amending it to include a prohibition on future issuance of permits until the studies are submitted to DEQ in December of 2017.