Environmental nonprofit group Appalachian Voices filed a lawsuit Thursday to obtain a reported document from the Virginia attorney general’s office that would undercut Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desire to pull Virginia out of a regional environmental cap and trade market.
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — dubbed RGGI — is a consortium of several states where energy producers trade emission reductions for credits, or they buy credits to emit carbon dioxide past a capped amount. Proceeds from participation in the initiative go toward various environmental and energy efficiency projects.
Virginia joined RGGI in 2021 after the state legislature passed a law in 2020. The month after his November election, Youngkin said he wanted to pull Virginia from the initiative, terming it a tax on electricity ratepayers and a bad deal for them and for business.
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But for Virginia to pull out of RGGI, the move would have to come from the state’s General Assembly, which passed the law in the first place — according to the purported opinion from the attorney general’s office.
During an April 20 meeting of the State Air Pollution Control Board, member Hope Cupit said she “received an opinion from the attorney general’s office back in March saying that [removing Virginia from RGGI] is not the responsibility of the board, that it’s the responsibility of the General Assembly.”
The lawsuit, filed in Charlottesville Circuit Court, seeks to obtain the document. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the suit on behalf of Appalachian Voices. SELC is representing the organization and its policy director, Peter Anderson, who had been denied in a Freedom of Information Act request from the board and the attorney general’s office.
Because Cupit made public the existence of the document at a public meeting, senior SELC attorney Mark Sabath said that should not exempt it from FOIA.
Sabath said that if “there’s not a valid exclusion, then you have to provide the public with the document.”
Pressed as to whether the attorney general’s office provided Cupit with anything in writing, a special counsel in the office, Stephanie Hamlett, said there was a document. She said the attorney general declined to release it, and she cited a discretionary FOIA exemption for written advice of legal counsel, the Richmond Times-Dispatch previously reported.
“They could have said ‘we don’t have any documents responsive to your request.’ That’s not what they said,” Sabath explained. “They said, ‘there’s a record and we’re withholding it.’ ”
In an email, Victoria LaCivita, a spokesperson in the attorney general’s office, declined to comment as the litigation is pending.
According to Sabath, the case has a hearing scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville.
“Presumably the court will decide whether we’re entitled to the document or whether it was properly withheld,” he said.