Flood-Prone Communities in Virginia May Lose a Lifeline if Governor Pulls State Out of Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Aside from capping power plant emissions, the RGGI program sustains a state fund that helps coastal towns cope with recurring storms and rising tides.

A driver passes through a street flooded by rain from Hurricane Irene on Aug. 28, 2011 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Credit: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
A driver passes through a street flooded by rain from Hurricane Irene on Aug. 28, 2011 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Credit: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Share this article

The area surrounding Kimberly Bridge in Suffolk, Virginia, has flooded several times in the last five years. Each time, chocolate brown water from the Nansemond River washes over the road and renders it impassable. The water, which is full of untreated pollutants and bacteria, creeps up North Main Street, damaging properties and disrupting daily activities.

The bridge is a main thoroughfare connecting southern Suffolk to the city’s downtown area and provides access to many essential businesses, from grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations to banks and doctor’s offices. 

“The bridge gets closed, and it literally cuts people off from being able to get to and from work and school safely,” said Kelly Hengler, a resident and the president of the local Crittenden Eclipse Hobson Civic League. “But it’s not just the bridge—it will flood out a number of businesses that are there. And if it’s a hurricane, it just looks like one giant lake.”

Last year, a glimmer of promise emerged: The area was granted a $150,000 lifeline by the state’s Community Flood Preparedness Fund, which provides money to localities that need to reduce their flood risks. Awarded to Suffolk’s Public Works Department, the grant is being used to conduct a study on ways the area can bolster its resilience to rain-induced and tidal flooding. Both are becoming more frequent in the region as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of storms and causes sea levels to rise.


We deliver climate news to your inbox like nobody else. Every day or once a week, our original stories and digest of the web’s top headlines deliver the full story, for free.

But now, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration is threatening to take away the fund’s key source of revenue: the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. Youngkin, a Republican, wants to cut off Virginia’s participation in the RGGI framework, in which 12 Eastern states use a market mechanism to reduce their power plant emissions with the goal of slowing climate change. 

Before the Community Flood Preparedness Fund was established, money available for resilience work was limited. “You would have to wait for disaster, a hurricane or major storm, and then you would hope to use some of that to do resilience planning,” said Jay Ford, an outreach coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “But that’s no way to respond to a persistent threat like sea level rise or recurrent flooding. These are not things that are happening in fits and starts. It’s our new baseline.”

A Market-Driven Framework

At its core, RGGI (pronounced reggie) is a cap-and trade system. Each of the 12 participating states conducts an individual trading program in which fossil fuel-driven power plants with a capacity of at least 25 megawatts must purchase allowances equal to their carbon dioxide emissions.

The trading programs operate within a mutually agreed cap that limits the total number of allowances granted across all 12 states. The cap effectively reduces what power plants in the region can emit each year, which forces up the price of the allowances and creates a market incentive to curb releases of greenhouse gases.

“It says that when you burn fossil fuels and you put air pollution into the air, you need to start factoring in the costs of that to all of us,” said Nate Benforado, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Virginia joined RGGI in 2020, and for Benforado, it is already a proven framework. “If you look at the emissions data in Virginia through the first two years of participation, our emissions over those two years have already dropped 16.8 percent,” he said. “That’s after a decade, 2010 to 2020, where our emissions were flat.”

But Youngkin argues that RGGI imposes unfair costs on Virginians. “Virginia’s participation in the RGGI risks contributing to the increased cost of electricity for our citizens,” the governor declared in an executive order issued in January 2022, the month he took office. 

The order proposed to re-evaluate the state’s involvement in the trading system. “Virginia’s utilities have sold over $227 million in allowances in 2021 during the RGGI auctions, doubling the initial estimates,” it said. “Those utilities are allowed to pass on the costs of purchasing allowances to their ratepayers.”

Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, did pass on the carbon-market charge to its customers—a decision that was upheld by Virginia’s Supreme Court last year. Roughly $2.39 was added to the average resident’s monthly bill.

But opponents of the governor’s move to pull out of RGGI say that utility costs are becoming burdensome because of the state’s overdependence on fossil fuels, which drives up the cost of allowances. “There’s a reason why clean energy is the most affordable energy now,” said Tim Cywinski, a spokesman for the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. “It’s because the price of it isn’t volatile—it’s not tied to some international event.” He pointed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which drove up global gas prices last year.

In lieu of maintaining Virginia’s involvement in RGGI, the Youngkin administration has proposed to add $200 million to a state revolving loan fund to compensate for the loss of revenue from the  cap-and-trade framework. Benforado argues that such an alternative would fall short. “There are a lot of important differences between that program and what the Community Flood Preparedness Fund provides,” he said. 

Crucially, he points out, the revolving fund would substitute loans for grants, and some localities cannot afford that debt commitment.

Financing Flood Projects Across the State

Virginia’s General Assembly passed legislation allowing the state to join RGGI in February 2020, 12 years after the group’s first auction of CO2 allowances. The state received more than $43 million in revenue from the first auction in which it took part, in March 2021.

The same legislation established the Community Flood Preparedness Fund to support localities seeking to reduce their flood risks. Forty-five percent of Virginia’s revenue from RGGI goes to the fund. So far, nearly $100 million has been allocated to finance approximately 100 projects across the state.

“This is helping localities do work they were never able to do before,” said Lee Francis, deputy director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “Cities all over the state are ready to get to work protecting their communities, so getting rid of that funding midstream will just pull the rug out from under those folks.”

Without the fund, many cities would not have the resources to adapt to climate-related increases in flooding. The federal government has designated 9 percent of Virginia’s land as Special Flood Hazard Areas, meaning the land has at least a 1 percent chance of being inundated in any given year, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

At least 25 percent of the money disbursed by the Community Flood Preparedness Fund must go to projects in low-income areas, a recognition of the historical denial of state resources to such communities.

“Low-income communities exist because of previous discriminatory practices, like redlining,” said Ford of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, referring to the longtime practice of withholding services from poorer neighborhoods. “So the idea that these communities could once again be disproportionately impacted by climate impacts and a lack of resources to keep their culture and their community intact is beyond infuriating.”

The median household income in the Kimberly Bridge study area sits 20% below Suffolk’s median, according to the city’s application for the $150,000 grant. Flooding adds to the residents’ struggles: When the area is inundated, the only way to reach downtown businesses “is to go all the way around a huge interstate system and come into Suffolk by literally going around the edges of the city,’’ Hengler says.

Beyond the risk from major rainstorms, the Kimberly Bridge area may flood even in dry weather when wind-driven tides peak in the Nansemond River. Storm drains on either side of North Main Street, just north of the bridge, are also susceptible to inundation when tides are high. The avenue’s drains overflow and flood the street.

“When we receive large storms, hurricanes, or Nor’easters, the flooding can extend up to 700 feet north of the bridge and have significant impacts on local businesses,” said a spokesperson for the city’s Public Works Department.

As greenhouse gas emissions continue to propel climate change, this is expected to get worse. Sea levels around Virginia are projected to rise anywhere from one to six feet in the next 50 years, according to the nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments program. That will not only intensify tidal flooding but also push the water further inland.

In neighboring Norfolk, the likelihood of exceeding the National Weather Service’s flood thresholds has increased fourfold since the 1960s as a result of sea level rise, the federal government’s most recent National Climate Assessment found.

A study conducted on the Kimberly Bridge in 2013 analyzed the causes of recurrent flooding, but its scope did not include the issue of fostering resilience in a changing climate. The new study funded by the $150,000 state grant began in January and is expected to take eight months. It will include the preparation of three conceptual design alternatives for raising the road and bridge along North Main Street. Each proposed scenario will be assessed against projected one-in-100-year flood events, with additional elevation factored in to account for sea level rise.

Hengler said that, while locals have long recognized the need to make the Kimberly Bridge more resilient, the project has never been prioritized. “Everything that happens with the government” depends on “when the cost of not addressing something becomes excessive,” she said. “Everything, quite unfortunately, comes down to funding.”

In her view, this underlines the importance of the Community Flood Preparedness Fund. In addition to disbursing money for specific infrastructure improvement projects, it provides grants that help local governments adopt wider flood management strategies. Some Virginia towns and counties “either don’t have the staff with the expertise or they don’t have the financial resources,”’ she said.

Suffolk was like this. Until the city received the grant to expand its resilience plan in 2021, it did not have any public works employees who were certified floodplain managers. Hengler said she was astonished to discover this, as Suffolk’s geography makes it particularly vulnerable to floods. 

“We have a river and a litany of creeks,” she said. “Add in additional rains, high water, inadequate stormwater, and it all becomes a massive compounding issue.” But until the grant arrived, “everything had been accepted into planning and approved without the eyes of a certified floodplain manager.”

Without RGGI, the Prospect of Ongoing Political Uncertainty

Without RGGI, the Community Flood Preparedness Fund would continue to exist on paper. Any funding would be subject to annual budgetary approval by the General Assembly. That would leave the fund more dependent on a changing body of lawmakers whose support could shift with the political winds.

“Waiting and hoping that the legislature has the money” is “a very risky gamble and one that would cost us a lot more than long-term,” Ford said.

Keep Environmental Journalism Alive

ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.

Donate Now

Benforado agreed, noting that resilience planning projects can often be passed over in favor of more urgent and visible issues. RGGI “is really the only consistent funding available for localities,” he said.

For some residents of Suffolk, the move to pull Virginia out of the cap-and-trade framework feels like a slap in the face, “Is the public need and the greater cost of not addressing the issue via the RGGI enough to completely leave us, once again, in a pay-as-you-go situation?” Hengler asked. 

Attempts to repeal the legislation that enabled Virginia’s participation in RGGI have proved difficult with a Democratic-controlled state Senate. So the Youngkin administration is taking a multistep regulatory route that began in September with a Notice of Intended Regulatory Action. A monthlong public comment period followed, and 730 of the 838 comments submitted opposed the move, according to Travis Voyles, Virginia’s acting secretary of natural and historic resources.

In December, the state Air Pollution Control Board then voted in favor of a proposed regulation that would withdraw the state from RGGI, opening the way for a 60-day comment period that will continue until March 31. After that ends, the state board will vote on a final version of the regulation. If approved, the change will go to the executive branch and the governor for final approval.

Opponents in the state, including Democrats, contend that the administration lacks the authority to remove Virginia from RGGI through this process. “What the Youngkin administration is doing is a backdoor sidestepping of the legislature and attempting to just throw out sections of Virginia’s code that he doesn’t have authority to do,” said Francis of the League of Conservation Voters.

Youngkin counters that while the law authorizes Virginia’s participation in the program, it does not require it. “The words are very clear: It authorized but did not mandate,” the governor said last September.

Francis expects the issue to end up in the courts. “I don’t see this moving forward without a challenge,” he said. “There are clear constitutional separation-of-powers issues at play here.”

For residents of Suffolk contending with the flooding problem, the bottom line is preserving future opportunities for funding solutions. “The water and rain and flooding is not going to go away,” Hengler said. “We must have a plan that’s non-negotiable.

“If we do nothing, what is the cost? If we postpone, what is the cost?” she said. “It’s exponential.”