New policies help Virginia line up as an eco-friendly state

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By Doug Childers

In a presidential election year, it’s common for pundits to talk about red states and blue states. These days, they’re even talking about purple states.  But the most important color for state governments may be green.

While Virginia is late to the party, it’s playing a quick game of catch-up. In recent months, the state rolled out its first comprehensive energy plan and a commission on climate change. Last fall it offered consumers a sales tax break on energy-saving appliances. And during this year’s session, the General Assembly considered more than 130
environmental and energy-related bills, everything from tax credits for biofuel to required reporting of greenhouse gas emissions by large energy users.

The new initiatives follow a big bump in Virginia’s carbon dioxide emissions. From 1990 to 2004, emissions increased by 34 percent — or 32.1 million metric tons — a rate nearly twice the national average, according to a report released last year by the Washington-based U.S. Public Interest Research Group.  In that analysis, Virginia came in No. 13 among the top 15 states for the largest percentage increases in energy-related carbon emissions.

Data from Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality puts the total at 181 million metric tons of greenhouse gases a year, ranking Virginia about 17th overall among the states. This analysis, based on 2005 data, shows that power plants released the greatest amount of carbon dioxide emissions, at 36 percent.  They were followed by cars
and other transportation sources at 31 percent. The remaining third came from industrial and manufacturing operations, solid waste disposal and agriculture.

Overall, when it comes to being green, Virginia’s position is middle-of-the-pack. Last fall, during its first nationwide look at America’s greenest states, Forbes magazine ranked Virginia at No. 23. Vermont took first-place honors based on scores for its carbon footprint, air and water quality, hazardous waste management policies and
energy consumption.

An important part of Virginia’s push to become more environment friendly is the new energy plan. Mandated by the 2006 General Assembly and presented by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine last September, it includes these goals: a 40 percent reduction in the growth rate of Virginia’s energy use, a 30 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and a
20 percent increase in state-produced energy. While that sounds lofty, the proposal would return emissions to 2000 levels.

One positive economic benefit is already flowing from Virginia’s energy plan. David W. Schnare, an earth scientist and senior fellow at the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy in Springfield points to Virginia’s recent purchase of 27,000 compact fluorescent bulbs to replace incandescent bulbs in facilities across the commonwealth.
The switch should save Virginia taxpayers more than $125,000 per year and reduce electric use equivalent to the amount used by 1,300 homes. It also will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 1,100 metric tons per year.

To further reduce the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, the governor also created a Commission on Climate Change in December. Since the energy plan will achieve only half of the state’s proposed reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, it’s up to the board to come up with ways for achieving the other half.

Tackling climate change in Virginia is especially important because of its coastal location. “ …  Scientists?say the vulnerability of?the state’s low-lying coasts to rising sea levels is surpassed in the United States only by the New Orleans region,” says Michael Lipford, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Virginia and one of the commission’s 43 members.

Heading the commission is L. Preston Bryant Jr., Virginia’s secretary of natural resources. “We all are increasingly cognizant that we can have clean air, water and lands without inflicting pain on businesses and harming our economy,” he says.  “That same phenomenon we see in the private-sector marketplace can be seen in the public sector, where policymakers are appealing to their constituents’ same environmental sensitivities. Some vie for dollars, others for votes. In both cases, the environment wins.” 

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