Big greenhouse gas emitter moves to join climate initiative

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks to reporters during a news conference on his signing an executive order for his administration to start working on regulations to bring Pennsylvania into a nine-state consortium that sets a price and limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019, in Harrisburg, Pa. The move is part of Wolf's effort to fight climate change in the nation's fourth-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania is moving to join nine nearby states in a regional effort to reduce carbon pollution to combat the effects of climate change, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Thursday.

“Climate change is the most critical environmental threat confronting the world, and power generation is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions,” Wolf said.

Participating states have agreed to implement the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative through a regional cap-and-trade program involving CO2 emitting electric power plants. These states — Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — set a cap on total CO2 emissions from electric power generators in their states.

The move to join the RGGI through an executive order by the governor immediately drew praise from most environmental groups, while attracting varying degrees of protest from business groups and Republican lawmakers.

Wolf’s announcement comes two weeks after Republican state Sen. Joe Pittman of Armstrong County had circulated a memo seeking support for legislation that would bar the state from taking an action like Wolf’s Thursday order without approval of the General Assembly. Pittman said he’s “deeply disappointed” by Wolf's announcement.

Armstrong said there are close to 800 people employed in coal and coal waste power plants in his district.

The governor “has unfortunately chosen to disregard these fine men and women, and their families, in favor of supporting an unnecessary and expensive trading scheme. I choose to stand with and fight for these hard-working men and women and will continue to advocate for policies that ensure the future of these important electric plants,” Pittman said.

In order to show compliance with the cap, power plants must purchase a credit or “allowance,” for each ton of CO2, they emit. These purchases are made at quarterly auctions conducted by RGGI. The most recent RGGI auction held Sept. 4 resulted in an allowance price of $5.20 per ton, according to the governor's office. The proceeds from the auctions are allocated back to the participating states in proportion to the amount of carbon subject to regulation in each state. The other states mainly use that money to encourage the development of renewable energy or to pay for energy efficiency improvements for residential customers and businesses, according RGGI.

Pennsylvania’s electric sector produced 82 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2016, the most recent year of data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The electric power industry only produced more carbon dioxide in three other states — Florida, Texas and Indiana, that year.

Republican state Sen. Gene Yaw of Lycoming County is the chairman of the Senate Environmental Resource and Energy Committee. He said he supports efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but said there are a number of unanswered questions about the implications of joining the RGGI.

“How is this going to impact industry? We have numerous gas-fired power plants, as well as coal. What is the impact going to be on the petrochemical cracker plant in Beaver County?” Yaw said.

Yaw said it might make more sense to join a regional effort with Ohio and West Virginia, which have energy sectors more similar to Pennsylvania than New York and the New England states that make up most of the RGGI.

Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry President and CEO Gene Barr said legislative input and an analysis of the impact on ratepayers is needed.

“Climate change is real and so is the need to have the business community at the table to discuss solutions and consider the tradeoffs,” Barr said.

Environmental advocates said the threat of climate change makes the governor’s move necessary.

“The climate crisis we face requires decisive, concrete action — and today we got that from Gov. Wolf. The order he just signed will lead to tangible reductions in Pennsylvania’s climate pollution,” said Pam Kiely, senior director of regulatory strategy for Environmental Defense Fund. “The regulatory strategy outlined today has delivered strong results across the region for a decade. With this template and the intensifying urgency around climate change, we expect the Governor’s team will be able to act meaningfully early next year.”

Pennsylvania’s power plants emit almost as much carbon dioxide pollution as the rest of the states in the RGGI combined, Wolf said.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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