We have some good news, and not-so-good news to report from Virginia’s 2021 legislative session which came to an end in early March. Appalachian Voices fought for the health and well-being of communities and the environment, and we are grateful for the many emails you sent, calls you made and social media you shared to support our legislative efforts.
With the help of allies, partners and supporters like you, we advocated for bills that would improve access to solar energy, address high electricity bills, protect communities from pipeline-caused water pollution, embed environmental justice into the work of state agencies, and support a just transition in communities impacted by fossil fuels. While not all of our priority bills were passed into law, many were.
The Good News ?
Bills supporting solar energy and justice for frontline communities—as well as reining in pipeline pollution and gold mining— have either been signed into law by Governor Northam or will be soon.
Solar for Schools: Schools and local governments in Southwest Virginia are now able to access Power Purchase Agreement financing for clean energy, thanks to HB 2034 (Hurst) / SB 1420 (Edwards). This is an important financing tool that ensures tax-exempt entities can go solar!
Solar on Abandoned Coal Mines: The Brightfields Act, HB 1925 (Kilgore), creates a grant program that will promote renewable energy development on coal-mined sites and other brownfields.
Stronger Pipeline Permitting Process: Applications for fracked-gas pipeline permits are now subject to a stronger review of a project’s potential impacts on soil and water quality thanks to SB 1311 (McClellan). Meanwhile, SB 1265 (Deeds) expands the Department of Environmental Quality’s authority to issue a stop-work order when construction harms water quality.
Power Plant Transparency: Power plant owners are now required to provide information about the facility’s financial status and to provide more information and transparency regarding power plant closures to support communities in transitioning from fossil fuels, thanks to HB 1834 (Subramanyam) / SB 1247 (Deeds).
Gold Mining Oversight: A group of state agencies, impacted community members and other stakeholders will now conduct a study on the environmental and health impacts of gold mining in Virginia, according to the directive of HB 2213 (Guzman). The bill also would have imposed a moratorium on large-scale gold mining until the study is completed, but this provision was removed by the Senate.
Economic Opportunities: The state will conduct a stakeholder process to look at how the Commonwealth can provide economic transition support to the coalfield region, thanks to HB 1899 (Hudson) / SB 1252 (McPike).
The Bad News ?
Electric Monopoly Reform: Unfortunately, five bills that would have restored authority to state utility regulators to address unfair and excessive electricity rates failed in the Senate, despite strong bipartisan support in the House of Delegates. For the second year in a row, powerful legislators on the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor blocked the efforts of a diverse coalition of advocates and legislators to reform electric utility regulation in Virginia. As a result, Virginians will continue to pay the 6th highest electric bills in the country. Nonetheless, we should thank bill patrons for their leadership on utility regulation reform (Senator McClellan and Delegates Jones, Ware, Bourne, Helmer, Hudson, and Tran).
Environmental Justice: Amendments to the 2020 Virginia Environmental Justice Act, HB 2074 (Simonds) / SB 1318 (Hashmi), also fell just shy of the necessary votes to pass. The bills would have taken the important step of integrating justice into state government by codifying the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice. However, the bills were scuttled in a conference committee — even after each bill passed both the House of Delegates and the Senate. This means no environmental justice legislation will be signed by the governor this year.
While there is still much work ahead to ensure a just and fair transition to clean energy, we have much to celebrate. Thank you for supporting us during this legislative session! We are grateful to you, our bill patrons and our partners in the advocacy community for working to bring about positive change in Virginia.
Contributions to this post (and our efforts in Virginia) were made by the entire Appalachian Voices Virginia Team — Peter, Chelsea, Austin, Emily, Jess, and Adam.