The Pennsylvania State Capitol on July 30, 2020. Pennsylvania's Environmental Quality Board advanced a Gov. Tom Wolf-backed climate program on Sept. 15, 2020. (Jordan Wolman/B&W Staff)

State environmental board advances key Wolf-backed climate initiative

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Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board voted in favor of adopting a proposal for the state to enter into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. The vote is the first significant step in a long regulatory process to bring the plan to fruition in Pennsylvania.

The four hour-long meeting featured intense debate, fierce opposition among board members and even an “f bomb” before a 13-6 vote to move forward in the regulatory process for the key, Gov. Tom Wolf-backed climate initiative. 

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, and Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, the chairs of the House and Senate Environmental Resources and Energy committees, respectively, voted against the proposal advancing forward.

RGGI is a cap and trade program in which the state would price carbon into the market by requiring carbon-emitting power plants to purchase “allowances” for their emissions. The less carbon a particular plant needs to produce electricity, the less allowances they will need to purchase. 

Energy providers then are forced to factor cost of allowances into how much they charge for electricity, making the cleaner electricity also the cheapest. The number of allowances the state would offer for purchase would decline over time, according to DEP modeling. Funds raised through the purchase of allowances would then go back into the state’s economy to support green energy and other environmental causes.

Every other Northeastern state — 10 in total — has joined RGGI. Virginia is poised to join the program in the coming years, too. 

“The big picture is that climate change is the most serious long-term threat to this planet,” Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware said at the meeting. Vitali voted in favor of moving RGGI forward. “It’s here. It has to be dealt with. (RGGI) is very logical. It’s a very market-based solution to this. It puts a price on putting carbon into the atmosphere. It stands to reason that this market approach will work.” 

The vote, however, will not enter Pennsylvania into the program. Rather, the Environmental Quality Board was voting on whether or not to advance RGGI into the next step of the regulatory review process. The 20-member board is made up of mostly Wolf-appointed Cabinet members but also includes lawmakers and members of the Citizens Advisory Council.

A 60-day public comment period will now open, including five virtual public hearings. The Independent Regulatory Review Commission and two legislative committees will each independently review the RGGI regulation before a second and final vote by the Environmental Quality Board.  

Pennsylvania wouldn’t enter RGGI until 2022 at the earliest. In the months prior to the EQB’s Tuesday vote, the RGGI proposal was presented before three DEP advisory councils — none of which voted to formally recommend the program for adoption. 

RGGI has become a lightning rod of sorts in recent months among Republicans and even some Democrats in the GOP-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature. Metcalfe, calling RGGI an “illegal scheme” and a “job killing regulation” at the Tuesday meeting, questioned the authority of both Wolf — who directed the state to join RGGI in an October 2019 executive order — and the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to enforce the new regulation without legislative approval.

The DEP cited the Air Pollution Control Act as its statutory authority for regulating air quality in Pennsylvania. 

But the House and Senate have both passed House Bill 2025, with a minority of Democrats in both chambers joining Republicans to support the measure. The bill, which now heads to Wolf’s desk, would require General Assembly approval before the state enacts any carbon cap or joins any multi-state greenhouse gas cap and trade program. 

Wolf is expected to veto the bill. Neither chamber passed House Bill 2025 with a veto-proof majority. 

The Wolf administration is touting its climate goals as necessary, citing a 70 percent increase in precipitation in the last 60 years leading to crop damage and flooding, and a projected statewide temperature increase of 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050. And while DEP is projecting a net increase of 30,000 jobs in Pennsylvania by 2030 and the reduction of carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2025 if the state joins RGGI, others have voiced concerns. 

Yaw pointed out at the EQB meeting that while other Northeastern states might have the benefit of consuming energy, Pennsylvania is a leading energy producer in the country and could therefore be adversely impacted by RGGI. The U.S. Energy Information Administration ranks Pennsylvania as the nation’s second-leading energy producer and the biggest producer in the Northeast. That’s thanks to a boom in natural gas exploration in the state in recent years.

“We have nothing in common with (the other RGGI states),” Yaw said. “We are a producer. They are users. My other objection is this: It’s a superficial fix. We are addressing one small part of one industry, and we’re deciding that we’re going to put these particular people out of jobs.” 

There are currently five coal-fired power plants and nine coal waste plants in Pennsylvania — a source of concern among those lawmakers and board members who are worried that the closure of those plants would harm the tax base in those communities. 

But the agency also ranks Pennsylvania as the fifth-leading carbon dioxide emitter in the country. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, RGGI states have reduced their emissions by 45 percent between 2015 and 2017 and are seeking to further reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

“RGGI would actively harm our economic recovery by driving more business from the state and instantly destroying family-sustaining jobs from hard working citizens,” Metcalfe said. “By pursuing RGGI, DEP is harming our citizens and businesses when they can least afford it.”

The DEP admits in its projections that energy bills are likely to increase slightly shortly after joining RGGI but will bring greater energy savings in the future.

“People who point out this defect or that defect are ignoring the big picture,” Vitali said. “Ten states are in (RGGI). They’re not getting out of it. The opponents who criticize this, and frankly any other thing that addresses climate change … they never acknowledge the reality of climate change and they never propose solutions of their own.”

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