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Lawmaker proposes halting new fossil fuel projects in Virginia

The proposed southern view of the Chesterfield Energy Reliability Center, adjacent to the existing Chesterfield Power Station. (Image via Dominion Energy)
The proposed southern view of the Chesterfield Energy Reliability Center, adjacent to the existing Chesterfield Power Station. (Image via Dominion Energy)

A first-time Democratic delegate has proposed a sweeping new bill to halt all new fossil fuel-related projects in Virginia. 

House Bill 28 would put a pause on approving new natural gas or coal-fired power plants, pipelines, oil refineries and even import or export terminals used for fossil fuels. 

Del. Mike Jones is a former Richmond City Council member elected in November to represent the 77th District covering parts of Richmond and Chesterfield County. He said fossil fuel infrastructure can cause serious health problems but is often sited in neighborhoods with the least political power.

“Typically, these projects end up in Black and brown or vulnerable communities,” Jones said, but those communities “get overlooked or get left out of the conversation.” 

People of color in the U.S. face a roughly 28% higher health burden – the impact of health problems as measured by mortality, cost and other factors – compared to the general population due to living in proximity to facilities that emit air pollution like soot, according to a 2018 study by federal scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Risks were higher for those living under the poverty line and highest among Black residents specifically, including for premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

Jones said he hears from constituents worried about health impacts like asthma from living near power plants.

He was particularly motivated by Dominion Energy’s plans to build a new natural gas plant in Chesterfield, south of Richmond. The utility says it would run only during periods of high electricity demand statewide.

There was already a separate coal-fired power plant in Chesterfield, also owned by Dominion. Some called the new adjacent plant a “slap in the face.”  

Dominion spokesperson Aaron Ruby said in an email the utility is all in on clean energy “but renewables alone cannot reliably keep the lights on 24/7, 365.” 

“If those are the only energy sources we have, we’re not keeping the lights on when our customers need it the most,” he wrote. “That’s why we need a balanced energy mix with renewables, carbon-free nuclear and always-reliable natural gas working hand-in-hand.”

Jones said he drafted the bill drawing from conversations with Richmond colleagues and environmental groups over the past summer. 

It includes a workforce development component to help transition workers in the fossil fuel industry to renewable energy jobs. 

The legislation would create job training programs that prioritize people who live in environmental justice communities, meaning areas with predominantly minority or low-income residents.

Jones said he knows halting all new fossil fuel infrastructure is unlikely to win majority support in the General Assembly – and even more unlikely to get a signature from Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who helped remove Virginia from a regional carbon market meant to curb fossil fuel emissions. A similar bill failed to progress during the 2022 legislative session. 

But he wants to jumpstart discussion on the issue.

“This allows me to amplify the issue,” Jones said. “And to find a pathway forward to slow down some of the effects of these fossil fuel projects that are being dumped in our neighborhoods and our communities.”

Jones’ bill has not yet been referred to a committee. Virginia’s legislative session started Wednesday and is scheduled to adjourn on March 9.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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