Youngkin circumvents legislature to upend Virginia climate policy

By Adam Aton | 07/01/2024 06:26 AM EDT

Lawmakers can do little to stop the reversal, one Democrat said, “short of writing in the legislation, ‘Dear future governor, thou shalt not change this.’”

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers his State of the Commonwealth address before the state General Assembly.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers his State of the Commonwealth address before the state General Assembly in January in Richmond. The governor has taken steps to weaken climate laws, frustrating the Democratic-controlled state legislature. Steve Helber/AP

It took Virginia Democrats a quarter-century to win enough power to pass climate policy into state law.

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has managed to unravel much of it in less than one term.

Last month, Youngkin strode into a Richmond car dealership and announced the rollback of Virginia’s clean car standards. He thanked a list of Republican lawmakers who had tried and failed to block zero-emissions vehicle regulations — losing control of the state House in the process.


But on that June day, Youngkin declared victory.

“What we need to do to deliver what Virginians need,” he said, “is accelerate.”

Youngkin has managed to advance Republican policy without his party winning the General Assembly. Along with his move to weaken auto standards, Youngkin has withdrawn the state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the cap-and-trade system for the Northeast’s electricity sector, despite a 2020 statute requiring the state’s participation.

It’s a vexing situation for climate hawks. While they are confident that Youngkin’s moves will be tossed by courts or reversed by the next governor, that could take years. Meanwhile, the state is locking in new emission sources that will persist long after Youngkin leaves the governor’s mansion, like gas-burning peaker plants.

“He has chosen to ignore the law, break the law and do the things that they accuse Democrats of doing,” Virginia House Speaker Don Scott said in an interview with POLITICO’s E&E News.

Virginia Democrats are torn over what lessons to take from Youngkin’s power play.

Some lawmakers wonder if they should use more careful language the next time they’re in a position to pass climate laws. But many Democrats in Richmond say Youngkin would have seized on any pretext to circumvent climate laws.

Del. Rip Sullivan, a Democrat who authored some of Virginia’s biggest climate laws, said there’s nothing lawmakers could have done differently “short of writing in the legislation, ‘Dear future governor, thou shalt not change this.’”

Youngkin’s office did not respond to requests for comment. But in public remarks, he has railed against climate policy as infringing on Virginians’ freedoms — especially programs like RGGI and the state’s adoption of California’s clean cars standards, which are not controlled by Old Dominion officials.

“I don’t think it’s that crazy of an idea that the rules and laws Virginians live by should in fact be enacted by Virginians,” the governor said last month when rolling back auto standards.

But Democrats assert that Youngkin is unwilling to accept checks and balances on his powers. They point to the very beginning of his term, when he tapped Andrew Wheeler — the former coal lobbyist who was EPA chief during the Trump administration — to lead the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Wheeler’s nomination was rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate. Youngkin responded by creating a new Office of Regulatory Management and appointing Wheeler as its head.

“Wheeler was obviously the first sign,” said state Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell (D).

Surovell said the episode not only revealed Youngkin’s posture toward climate policy but also demonstrated his willingness to push the boundaries of his power. That impression was reinforced over the coming months as Republicans aggressively expanded their control over the regulatory boards that control Virginia’s climate rules.

It was through one of those boards — the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board — that Youngkin’s appointees voted in June 2023 to take the commonwealth out of RGGI. The state had joined under a law Democrats passed in 2020. Environmental groups, which accuse the Youngkin administration of exceeding its authority, are suing to enforce that law.

Political calculus

At play are questions about whether climate law — or any law — can survive a hostile governor.

“Unfortunately, these actions call into question: Can the governor really essentially try to violate the separation of powers and just ignore or try to unilaterally undo any law he doesn’t like?” said Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is suing over the RGGI moves.

“Beyond the climate context — which is very troubling, that he’s singling out that area to try to eviscerate the steps the state has taken — there’s the larger question of executive overreach and separation of powers,” he said. “The governor can’t just ignore the law.”

Del. Charniele Herring, the Democratic majority leader and patron of the law that brought Virginia into RGGI, said Youngkin has repeatedly shown an unwillingness or inability to negotiate the kind of bipartisan agreements he needs to change law when Democrats control the General Assembly.

“It just reminds me of the playmate you had [as a child] who didn’t get their way and packed up their toys and left,” she said.

Critics say these fights and others — like his 2023 decision to remove Virginia from consideration for a Ford battery plant over links to a Chinese company — are about Youngkin’s personal ambition for higher office.

Although these policies are important, most voters aren’t familiar with them, said Tim Cywinski, communications director for the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. The target audience for these moves, he said, is Republican donors.

“This isn’t giving teachers more funding; this is stopping greenhouse emissions from vehicles and gas plants,” he said. “Gov. Youngkin is not going to be able to campaign for Senate — or, four years later, for governor again — because he struck down RGGI. Because nobody knows what that is.”

“But,” he added, “it does help him get more funders for a national run.”

Last year, Republicans railed against the auto standards in their bid to flip the state Senate. GOP candidates warned voters that the rules — which require all new vehicle sales to be zero emission by 2035 — would put Virginia drivers at the mercy of “unelected California bureaucrats.”

But Democrats held on to the Senate and flipped the House, giving them full control of the legislature. That left Republicans unable to overturn the auto standards through legislation, which GOP Attorney General Jason Miyares had said was necessary.

So in June, Youngkin and Miyares changed tactics and argued the law’s language — which says the state “may” adopt California’s standards — left enough discretion for Virginia to drop them.

“The law is not confusing,” Youngkin said. “We are going to end the California mandate.”

Republican state Sen. Ryan McDougle, the Senate minority leader, was one of the lawmakers who introduced legislation this year to repeal the law. After Youngkin announced he would roll back Virginia’s standards unilaterally, McDougle praised the governor for ditching regulations crafted under California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“Our laws,” he said in a statement, “should be decided by Virginians who are elected to serve Virginia and address issues that face our Commonwealth, not a state nearly 3,000 miles away.”

Democratic leaders say the Republican governor has failed to heed the lessons of his party’s election losses last year. Instead, the governor has doubled down on an “overreaching and authoritarian” governing style, said Scott, the House speaker.

“We thought we taught him a lesson that he needed to reverse course in November. But he’s stubborn,” Scott added. “So I guess we’ll have to teach him again … with another ass-whooping at the ballot box.”