Since he was first elected to represent Virginia’s 35th District in the House of Delegates, Del. Mark Keam (D-Vienna) has emerged as a steadfast advocate for environmental justice and reform.
That dedication to environmental policy was rewarded on Thursday (Feb. 4) when Keam’s House Bill 2118 passed the House and has now advanced to the State Senate for consideration. The bill seeks to create a grant program to fund electric vehicles.
The Virginia Electric Vehicle Grant Fund would allow schools and other qualified entities in Virginia to get state support for projects to replace vehicles that utilize fossil fuels with electric vehicles. A portion of the bill is aimed specifically at increasing the number and use of electric school buses in the state.
Keam said that his bill was inspired by his work with Mothers Out Front, a grassroots organization in Fairfax that focuses on renewable and clean energy. That work led Keam to review and focus on the toxins and greenhouse gas emissions that children are exposed to by school buses.
He brought a similar bill to the 2020 General Assembly, but it ultimately failed to pass the House, which Keam attributes to questions about Virginia’s ability to acquire funding for the project. Those questions, however, are seemingly being addressed at the federal level.
Keam credits the increase in support for his bill this year to President Joe Biden’s prioritization of efforts to address climate change and reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector. The bill is designed to partner with the Biden administration’s plans, and it would be set up to solicit federal funding and the private sector.
“My goal is, we set up this fund, we set up some criteria around that — who should apply for what — and as soon as some funding comes in, then we’ll set up this whole program that hadn’t existed before,” Keam said. “I was very proud to get this bill passed.”
Keam’s environmental work and support extends beyond that one bill, though.
He is also the chief co-patron for HB 2074, which would establish an Interagency Environmental Justice Working Group and require state agencies to adopt environmental policies. The bill’s chief patron is Del. Shelly Simonds (D-Newport News).
Keam touts HB 2074 and HB 2221, a bill proposed by Del. Hayes, Jr. (D-Chesapeake), as significant legislation to promote environmental justice in Virginia going forward. HB 2221 requires applicants seeking environmental permits to conduct community outreach.
“With these bills passing this year, Virginia is now going to have not only a very robust environmental justice law and an advisory council, a working group, policy, statements and definitions, but now we’re also going to be requiring license holders and permit holders to come in to do reviews ahead of time,” Keam said. “And we’re also going to require local governments to start adopting some of this as well.”
HB 1965 would direct the state Air Pollution Control Board to institute a program for low-emissions and zero-emissions motor vehicles with a model year of 2025 and later. HB 2042 would allow localities to exceed general requirements for tree replacement and other conservation ordinances.
Keam’s dedication to environmental policy has not gone unrecognized.
Keam has earned the designation of “Legislative Hero” or “Legislative Leader” from the Virginia League of Conservation Voters each year since his first term in the House in 2010. He has also been recognized by the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.
In September, Keam was named as one of the winners of the 2020 Fairfax County Environmental Excellence Awards. The Environmental Quality Advisory Council chose the honorees for their support of the county’s environmental goals and policies on behalf of the Board of Supervisors, which formally recognized the winners on Jan. 26.
“If I can do it a little bit as a member of the House of Delegates, I’m happy to do my part,” Keam said. “But even as a citizen and as a father, my goal is to do everything I can to live my values, do all I can to be a good steward of the environment.”
The county’s honor came after a year highlighted by the passage of Keam’s Solar Freedom Act, which raised Virginia’s cap on net-metered renewable energy. The law included eight provisions allowing consumers, small governments, small businesses, and others to access solar as a potential source of energy.
Keam says Virginia has accomplished “groundbreaking” work in recent years to shift from a fossil-dependent state to a renewable-focused one with the passage of Virginia Clean Economy Act. But he also recognizes that there is work still to be done.
While he says Virginia primarily focused on transportation this year, he believes future priorities will include housing and building codes as well as energy efficiency.
“This year we’re making huge progress on the transportation sector: how do we electrify and make that cleaner,” Keam said. “The next area I think we’re going to look at is sector by sector.”
Keam credits the energy and leadership of young activists for inspiring him to make environmental issues a priority.
“I think this is an area where as an adult, my generation hasn’t done as much as we should have,” Keam said. “So, I want to make up the difference by leaving my kids something better than what we found. I think that’s probably my biggest personal motivation for wanting to do more every day.”
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