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Sierra Club calls on legislature to reject McDonnell amendment on air pollution bill

Rosalind Helderman

The Sierra Club is calling on the General Assembly to reject an amendment made by Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) to a bill dealing with air quality that has special import to Northern Virginia. McDonnell striped language from a bill that had been added by Democrats in the state Senate that was designed to force coal-fired power plants in Northern Virginia to meet certain emissions limits.

For some time, Virginia has allowed coal-fired power plants that exceed the pollution limits allowed under their air permits to purchase pollution credits from plants elsewhere that were producing less than their limit. The cap-and-trade system is administered by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2006, the General Assembly amended the rules to allow the the state's Air Control Board to prevent coal-fired plants from taking part in the cap-and-trade system if they were in parts of the state that had been labeled "non-attainment" zones by the EPA -- that is to say, in areas where air quality was particularly poor.

The only part of the state that has so far been labeled such a zone by the EPA is Northern Virginia, meaning the change particularly impacted the Mirant Power Plant in Alexandria. This year's bill, sponsored by Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover) and Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), was designed to prohibit the air control board from preventing power plants from purchasing pollution credits anywhere, including in non-attainment areas.

They reasoned that if the EPA has designed a program that allows companies to purchase and trade pollution credits, why should Virginia's air control board stop it? Plus, they argued that while only one part of the state is now a so-called "non-attainment" area, the EPA could give other parts of the state the same label, dramatically impacting power plants all over the state.

But the bill did not emerge from the General Assembly unscathed. On a party line 21 to 19 vote, the Senate adopted an amendment by Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) to retain the current system for plants in areas of the state that had already been labeled non-attainment areas -- i.e., Northern Virginia. Without the option to buy the credits, plants in the region, including Mirant, would have no option but to abide by their mandated emissions limits.

"I just think there are some public health issues with expanding a plant that's located right smack in the heart of D.C.," Petersen said. "We've had this status quo for the last four years and I don't think it's hurting business or electricity rates."

Now McDonnell has taken action, removing Petersen's language. As a result, Mirant would once again be able to exceed emissions limits by participating in the EPA's cap-and-trade system and purchasing pollution credits from other plants.

The Sierra Club, which had been pushing McDonnell to veto the whole bill, now called on the General Assembly to reject McDonnell's action. "Rather than vetoing the bill as we requested, he's made matters worse by extending the reach of this anti-environmental legislation statewide to Northern Virginia which experiences the worst air quality in the state," said Glen Besa, director of the group.

Taylor Thornely, a spokeswoman for McDonnell, said the governor's change "makes Virginia law consistent across the state." She also said the bill helps bring Virginia law into compliance with a 2009 court ruling. In that case, a judge ruled that the Air Control Board exceeded its authority by preventing the trading of pollution credits; the board had previously only been allowed by law to prevent companies from purchasing credits from one another.

She also said McDonnell is committed to environmental protections, noting campaign promises to preserve 400,000 acres of Virginia land and improve the quality of the Chesapeake Bay.

Petersen said he is not certain if lawmakers will back his amendment or McDonnell's action. "It's going to be a little bit of a clash of the titans -- a fight between industry issues and environmental issues."

By Rosalind Helderman  |  April 15, 2010; 5:52 PM ET
Categories:  General Assembly 2010 , House of Delegates , Robert F. McDonnell , Rosalind Helderman , State Senate  
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McDoof, "Proudly dismantling the great state of Virginia one rivet, brick, law, molecule of oxygen at a time".

Posted by: hoser3 | April 15, 2010 10:55 PM | Report abuse

This article is on-par for most stories produced by the WaPo: it's riddled with misconceptions.

Emissions limits for any power plant are not "mandated" the way most people and stupid politicians think. Power plants are annually allotted a number of emissions credits. This is not a limit. The plant may operate and emit in excess of it's allotment, but it must cover the additional emissions produced by such operation by purchasing additional emissions credits through the EPA's Clean Air Markets Divions (CAMD) business system, i.e. the [emissions] cap and trade system. This [FEDERAL] system has been in place for many years and it works. Emissions credits are utilized by the plants that most need them (where the load-demand is highest) for continued operation. Over time, the pool of credits reduces and their cost increases, which provides an incentive for an emitter to clean up its emissions or reduce its operation. For any single state to limit a plant's participation in the cap and trade program is a ludicrous move; it would only result in a massive lawsuit that Virginia would lose. McDonnell is smart not to take up that fight as it is a waste of time and money.

The Mirant plant in question is not "located right smack in the heart of D.C." as Petersen indicates. It's located in Virginia. The important thing to note is that ALL of the power it produces is delivered via underwater cable to D.C. I assert that the best solution is for Virginia to send an enormous bill to D.C. to pay for the luxury of not having its power plant located within its limits, or better yet, force the plant to move to D.C. Let's get this problem off Virginia's plate, period.

Posted by: flintston | April 16, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

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