Opinion

Controlling Climate Pollution in Pennsylvania

By September 29, 2020 No Comments

A Trump reelection flag hangs across the river from the Clairton Coke Works. (Current Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
info@pittsburghcurrent.com

Anyone witnessing record-breaking fires, unprecedented floods, and droughts can see we are facing a climate crisis. Thousands of peer-reviewed climate science studies reveal that we must now act boldly to avoid an even worse climate disaster. Yet, President Trump has abandoned all of Obama’s climate policies from the clean power rules, the auto efficiency standards, and Trump’s announcement to pull the U.S. from the Paris Accord. The U.S. is failing to do its part to protect life on earth from an overheated planet.

Witnessing this national failure, Governor Wolf signed an Executive Order seeking to join a successful 10-state regional approach to control carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a cooperative effort between Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the Commonwealth of Virginia. RGGI is the first regional market-based effort in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

RGGI started in 2005 when seven northeastern states signed a Memorandum of Understanding to reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector by implementing a regional greenhouse gas initiative. RGGI states then established individual carbon budgets and trading programs based on model rules. 

The first auction occurred in September 2008 with an effective starting date of January 1st, 2009. Since then, RGGI states have reduced their CO2 emissions while experiencing economic growth. The power sector carbon emissions in the RGGI states have declined by over 40% since 2005, while the regional economies have grown 8%. RGGI is working and can do much more.

RGGI’s is a nationally relevant example of how economic growth can coincide with pollution reductions. A Congressional Research Service report indicated that “experiences in RGGI may be instructive for policymakers seeking to craft a national program.” While Trump is in the White House, the notion of crafting a national program is not happening. Governors must look to regional efforts to curb climate pollution.

Power plants in RGGI states must acquire pollution allowances equal to the amount of CO2 emitted. RGGI states sell their allowances through auctions. The ten participating states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative sold 16 million CO2 allowances in 2018 with an auction clearing price of $6.82. Bids for the CO2 allowances ranged from $2.32 to $10.00 per allowance. The 2018 auction generated a total of $110.4 million that RGGI states reinvested in strategic programs, including energy efficiency, renewable energy, direct bill assistance, and other pollution abatement programs. The revenue generated by the auctions are spurring innovation in the clean energy economy and creating green jobs in the RGGI states while ratching a regional pollution cap down.

RGGI is currently in its fourth three-year compliance period, which began January 1st, 2018, and ends in 2021. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is now seeking to join RGGI and participate in the next round of auctions. Power plants are a leading source of CO2 emissions, causing the Commonwealth to be one of the worst climate polluting states. On September 15th, in a contentious 13-6 vote, the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board (EQB) moved to promulgate a regulation to limit carbon pollution from power plants. Under the proposed rules, power plants that emit CO2 need to purchase pollution credits compatible with other RGGI states. DEP modeling shows that by participating in RGGI, the Commonwealth will decrease CO2 pollution by an estimated 188 million tons between 2022 and 2030 while creating more than 30,000 jobs new clean energy jobs. This action will also cut acid rain pollutants (SO2 and NOx), reduce pollution-related illnesses, and premature deaths. The Attorney General will review the proposed regulations before they appear in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. At a later date, DEP will announce a public comment and a public participation period.

No sooner did the EQB pass the pollution control rules when the Pennsylvania legislature acting as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the fossil-fuel industry, swiftly passed House Bill 2025 to block the Governor from curbing climate pollution. House Bill 2025 declares: “Except for a measure that is required by Federal law, the department may not adopt a measure or take any other action that is designed to abate, control or limit carbon dioxide emissions, including an action to join or participate in a State or regional greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program, including the RGGI, nor may the department establish a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program unless the General Assembly specifically authorizes such a measure or action by statute that is enacted on or after the effective date of this section.” 

The sponsors of the bill to protect big polluters included Representatives Struzzi, Oberlander, Snyder, Pyle, Dush, Petrarca, Turzai, Saylor, Benninghoff, Masser, Reese, Metcalfe, Barrar, Millard, Tobash, Marshall, Nelson, Rigby, Rothman, Gleim, Greiner, Bernstine, Fritz, Goodman, Sankey, Ortitay, Schmitt, Gregory, Cook, Mustello, Kail, Dunbar, Owlett, Heffley, Grove, Keefer, Gabler, Kortz, Sainato, Moul, Longietti, Warner, Roae, Jones, Knowles, Hershey, Kauffman, Walsh, Everett, James, Diamond, Burns, Dowling, Topper, Pickett, Gaydos, O’neal, Delozier, Borowicz, Brooks, Rowe, Causer, Mackenzie, and Representative Rapp. The legislature has recently granted the frack-gas industry $2.2 billion in tax subsidies for a plastics plant and for other gas facilities. Still, this General Assembly acting in willful ignorance will not pass even modest climate pollution controls embodied in RGGI.

Representative Struzzi representing Indiana County, was the prime sponsor of H.B. 2025. Indiana has a cluster of aging coal-fired powerplants, including Homer City, Conemaugh, Seward, and several frack-gas power plants. Representative Struzzi, hellbent on preventing clean energy options, sent a “sign-on letter” to lawmakers complaining “(s)ince Pennsylvania deregulated its electricity market, 19 coal-fired electric generating units have or are in the process of closing or converting.” These ancient coal plants closed were not competitive in an open energy market. Ignoring the cause of the closures, Struzzi did not do an objective cost/benefit evaluation of joining RGGI and never mentioned climate change. Instead, he used flawed economic arguments that ignored the current competitive realities of coal, and frack-gas and completely ignored the externalized environmental costs of climate change and air pollution when urging lawmakers to co-sponsor.

The truth is, all coal-fired powerplants are in a death spiral with or without RGGI. The USA Today reported, “Prices per megawatt-hour for coal-fired power plants range from a low of $60 to a high of $143, according to Lazard, a financial advisory firm that publishes annual estimates of the total cost of producing electricity… Wind is significantly cheaper: Unsubsidized, levelized prices per megawatt-hour of electricity from wind range from $29 to $56… For solar electricity, unsubsidized, levelized prices range from $40 to $46, according to Lazard figures.”

Governor Wolf responded by vetoing the bill stating, “Yesterday I vetoed House Bill 2025. This bill ignores the dangers of climate change — one of the most important and critical challenges we face. House Bill 2025 would have prevented the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection from taking any action to abate, control, or limit carbon dioxide emissions in the Commonwealth without the prior approval of the General Assembly. It would have put a halt to our efforts to mitigate the impact climate change has on lives and livelihoods in Pennsylvania — including rulemaking currently being developed to allow Pennsylvania to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Allowing this legislation to become law would effectively deny that climate change is an urgent problem that demands prudent solutions.”

RGGI will move electric power from dirty to clean sources while providing consumers with long-term cheaper energy. Much more needs to be done to wean us off of dirty energy, but this is an important step. The battle to rein in climate pollution through RGGI has taken an important step and deserves public support. PennFuture has been in the forefront of this fight. You can help by urging your lawmakers to support RGGI.

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