Northam gets lukewarm reception from Fairfax County environmentalists
meg, August 19, 2017
As a politician, Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam is no stranger to skeptical crowds, but as the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia, he might not have expected to get such a lukewarm reception from a crowd of environmental activists in Fairfax County.
Northam visited the Arlington-Fairfax Elks Lodge in Fairfax on Aug. 14 to discuss Virginia’s energy future with the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS), a Northern Virginia-based, nonpartisan organization aimed at mobilizing faith communities to address environmental issues.
Boos and grumbling issued from the crowd of about 200 people when Northam suggested that the proposed Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline projects could move forward pending approval from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE), and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
When the gubernatorial candidate asserted that natural gas is a cleaner energy source than coal, some crowd members vocally refuted the claim.
“I’m not here to defend or oppose Dominion,” Northam said of Dominion Energy, the power company serving as lead developer on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. “…I would like to go to 100 percent renewable [energy], but that’s not realistic.”
As lieutenant governor, Northam has served on the governor’s office advisory commission on climate change under both Gov. Terry McAuliffe and former Gov. Tim Kaine. The commission is charged with making recommendations on how the Commonwealth can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
On his campaign website, the Democratic nominee says that, as governor, he would ensure Virginia meets the standards for reducing carbon emissions set by the Clean Power Plan, and he hopes to create a Virginia “conservation cabinet” led by the secretary of natural resources to compensate for budget cuts on the federal level.
When speaking to FACS, Northam also highlighted the need to protect the Chesapeake Bay and to build resiliency projects in Virginia’s coastal communities to combat rising sea levels.
While he repeatedly emphasized that significant change will not happen overnight, Northam said that he wants to help Virginia increase its use of renewable energy, pledging that the state will produce 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.
“We all need to be good stewards of the environment, and certainly I think it would be great in Virginia if we could work toward and promote the use of renewable energy, solar and wind,” Northam said. “We’ve done a lot of good things the last four years…but we still have a lot of good work to do as we move forward.”
A report released by Environment Virginia Research and Policy Center on July 21, 2016 found that Virginia ranks 39th in the U.S. for solar capacity per capita with a cumulative 2.5 watts of solar capacity per person in 2015.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Virginia currently ranks 22nd in the nation with 241.5 megawatts of solar installed, down from 17th in 2016 despite increasing its overall capacity.
Virginia receives 0.09 percent of its electricity from solar power, according to the national trade association.
Environment Virginia stated in its 2016 “Lighting the Way” report that the difference between states leading the way in solar power capacity and those falling behind is not the abundance of sunshine, but rather the “adoption of strong public policies.”
Northam says that, while switching to renewable energy should be a priority, storing solar and wind energy remains a challenge, one that could be mitigated with technological improvements.
However, activists say that making a meaningful shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy will require more than better technology.
“Lots of mayors and governors are making pledges for a decade or two decades in the future, but what that’s going to require in the near-term is undoing laws that are actually prohibiting that acceleration,” said Davin Hutchins, a volunteer leader for the Climate Reality Project who attended Northam’s FACS dialogue.
For instance, renewable energy standards in Virginia are currently voluntary. States like North Carolina and Maryland have mandatory renewables portfolio standards (RPS), meaning that utilities must produce a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources by a specific date.
Many of the attendees of Northam’s event with FACS also see a contradiction between the gubernatorial candidate’s pledge to reduce Virginia’s carbon emissions footprint and his reluctance to oppose natural gas pipelines.
While natural gas is cleaner than coal, emitting half as much carbon dioxide, a 2014 study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that simply switching from coal to natural gas will not have a long-term effect on the climate, according to National Geographic.
In addition to carrying the risk of methane leaks during production, natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and relying on it as an alternative is only delaying the deployment of renewable energy, according to the 2014 study.
Francesca Costantino, a member of the Grassroots Coalition on Climate Change and an organization called Network NoVA that aims to flip Virginia to the Democratic Party, says that she was frustrated by what she heard from Northam at the FACS dialogue, but she thinks he is actually a “good environmental candidate” based on his past record.
“If you look at his record, he is pretty good, but we need more than just politics as usual now,” Costantino said.
As a nonpartisan organization, FACS plans to host a similar event with Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie.
The group is currently working toward a date in September, but an exact time and whether Gillespie will attend himself or send a member of his campaign team has not yet been determined, according to FACS co-founder and board of directors member Jean Wright.
“We’re still hopeful that candidate Gillespie will appear before the members of the faith community so we can have a dialogue on the importance of climate change,” FACS executive director Scott Peterson said.