Virginia’s Flood-Prone Communities At Risk if Youngkin Pulls Out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Photo by Jenna Lee on Unsplash

By Isabel Soisson

April 4, 2023

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has threatened to pull out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative’s (RGGI) framework, something that environmental advocates say will have the greatest effect on the Old Dominion’s coastal towns, which have suffered from recurring storms and rising tides in recent years due to climate change.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is a multi-state effort in the eastern United States to “use a market mechanism to reduce power plant emissions with the goal of slowing climate change.” According to NPR, all utilities in the member states and their outside investors “can purchase an ever-shrinking number of carbon allowances at quarterly auctions.”

The idea is that, meanwhile, the states work to transition their generating capacity to renewable sources of energy, like solar and wind. It is the first cap-and-invest initiative implemented in the United States.

The effort has been lauded by environmentalists in Virginia, who say that the benefits of the RGGI are vast. According to them, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state is “the best way” to fight against the “carbon-driven climate crisis” while also “reducing the prominence of harmful air pollutants associated with burning fossil fuels.”

“It says that when you burn fossil fuels and you put air pollution into the air, you need to start factoring in the costs of that to all of us,” Nate Benforado, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center told Inside Climate News, a non-profit news organization focusing on environmental journalism.

Advocates also say that pulling out of the initiative will have the greatest impact on flood-prone communities in the state, such as Suffolk and Norfolk.

The area surrounding Kimberly Bridge in the former has flooded several times in the past five years, according to Inside Climate News. This area was granted $150,000 by the state’s Community Flood Preparedness Fund (CFPF) last year, however, which was established through the RGGI. Since then, the Suffolk Public Works Department has been conducting a study to determine ways the area can “bolster its resilience” to rain-induced and tidal flooding.

Before this fund was established, areas such as these had to wait for a disaster, such as a hurricane or major storm, to occur before drawing on money available for resilience work.

So far, the RGGI has generated about $590 million for the Community Flood Preparedness Fund, as well as energy efficiency measures for low-income Virginians, who are typically the most vulnerable to the effects of significant flooding. Twenty-five percent of the money dispersed through the RGGI must go to projects in these low-income areas, as well.

“Rather than just dealing with the impacts after that happens and helping people rebuild, we have funding mechanisms now in place because of [RGGI] to actually address the problems before they happen,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

The money Richmond has received from the RGGI has also been going towards resilience planning in Windsor Farms, floodplain development reviews and drainage improvements on McGuire and Chapel drives, and a review of the city’s three-decade-old levee systems.

The city of Richmond has also received $7.5 million from the CFPF to go toward the purchase of Mayo Island, which has been designated as a “Special Flood Hazard Area” by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This grant will help clear the way for the installation of buffers to minimize harmful runoff from the island, as well as the restoration of the floodplain to its “natural and beneficial function,” according to NPR.

Mayo Island isn’t the only Special Flood Hazard Area in the state of Virginia, however. Nine percent of Virginia’s land is designated as such, and without the money from the RGGI, many coastal cities “would not have the resources to adapt to climate-related increases in flooding,” according to Inside Climate News.

Withdrawing from the RGGI would have major implications both environmentally and politically. Sea levels around Virginia are projected to rise anywhere from one to six feet in the next 50 years, according to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments program. If this happens, tidal flooding will not only become more common, but cause the water to be pushed further inland. Politically, without backing from the RGGI, the CFPF would still exist, but funding would be subject to annual budgetary approval by the General Assembly, making the fund more dependent on lawmakers.

Virginians have been submitting their thoughts on the Youngkin administration’s proposal to leave the RGGI for the past several weeks. The forum just closed on March 31.

  • Isabel Soisson

    Isabel Soisson is a multimedia journalist who has worked at WPMT FOX43 TV in Harrisburg, along with serving various roles at CNBC, NBC News, Philadelphia Magazine, and Philadelphia Style Magazine.

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