Despite U.S. setback, Virginia moving forward on Clean Power Plan

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia is moving forward with efforts to reduce carbon emissions linked to climate change amid uncertainty over the future of the Obama administration's landmark environmental initiative.

Despite a legal challenge, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the state's largest power company and environmentalists all agreed Wednesday that work on Virginia's share of the nation's Clean Power Plan should continue. In fact, a group of power company executives, environmentalists and others working on the Virginia plan are to meet as planned Friday.

A coalition of 27 primarily Republican-led states and industry opponents persuaded a divided Supreme Court to grant a lower court hearing on the argument that the proposed regulations are "an unprecedented power grab." The justices issued the temporary freeze Tuesday.

Arguments are scheduled in June before a federal appeals court, and a likely appeal to the Supreme Court could occur after President Barack Obama leaves office.

In Virginia, the setback was viewed as a bump in the road, not a roadblock.

Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter, said waiting for clarity on the Clean Power Plan is not an option.

"The harm is that the fossil fuel industry has held up action on the climate change for 20 years," he said. "The urgency associated with moving forward is more important every day."

McAuliffe, who has the final say on the clean-air plan, said in a statement "we will stay on course and continue to develop the elements for a Virginia plan to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate our clean energy economy."

Dominion Virginia Power also said it will "continue to move forward to comply with the Clean Power Plan."

While compliance with the new rules isn't required until 2022, states must submit their plans to the Environmental Protection Administration by September or seek an extension.

The climate change initiative is intended to blunt the worst predicted impacts of climate change. It requires that carbon dioxide emissions at existing power plants be reduced by 2030.

Implementation of the plan is also considered key to the United States meeting targets in a global climate agreement signed in Paris last month.

Virginia has made large strides in that direction already as more and more coal plants are retired in favor of cleaner natural gas generation.

The state plan is being hashed out by the Clean Power Plan Shareholders Group, which includes power company representatives, environmentalists and state officials. Its third meeting is Friday.

But McAuliffe holds all the cards.

"At the end of the day, the only decision that matters is what he decides he wants the Virginia plan to look like," said Will Cleveland, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

That has made McAuliffe the focus of an intense lobbying campaign by environmental groups and others who sent an open letter to the Democrat in January.

"Never in history has a Virginia governor had greater authority, greater responsibility and a greater opportunity to combat harmful carbon pollution," the letter states.

Proposed legislation in the current session would change that, giving the General Assembly authority to vote on the plan.

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