The Lead

Wolf vetoes GOP effort to block carbon fee on Pa. power plants

By: - January 10, 2022 3:37 pm

Governor Tom Wolf speaks during a press conference about Restore Pennsylvania and broadband internet access across the Commonwealth.

*This story was updated at 6:25 p.m. 1/10/25 with comment from Senate Republicans

Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed an attempt by the Pennsylvania General Assembly to block his administration from implementing a carbon fee on the commonwealth’s 58 fossil fuel-burning power plants.

Wolf, a Democrat, announced in 2019 he was bringing Pennsylvania into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. Under the initiative, each power plant must purchase credits at auction to account for every ton of carbon they will release into the atmosphere.

In a statement Monday, Wolf said that the initiative is “a vital step for Pennsylvania to reduce carbon emissions and achieve our climate goals. Addressing the global climate crisis is one of the most important and critical challenges we face.”

However, Wolf has faced consistent criticism from the Republican-controlled Legislature that the move is unlawful, and will cost jobs while accomplishing little to reduce carbon emissions.

“As the third largest energy producer and second largest producer of natural gas in the U.S, no other state has more to lose economically than Pennsylvania by joining” RGGI, Senate Republican spokesperson Erica Clayton Wright said in an email. “The governor’s stance on joining RGGI will result in the loss of good paying jobs and harm our state’s economy.”

State regulatory law allows the General Assembly to block a proposed regulation through a concurrent resolution, which passed the Senate in October and the House in December. However, Wolf has a chance to veto it, which he has vowed to do throughout the process.

Pa.’s carbon fee for power plants is ready to be enacted, but legislative agency says it can’t yet

The GOP opposition was buoyed by the trade unions that represent many workers who build, operate, and service coal and gas-fired power plants in the commonwealth. Normally staunch Democratic allies, these groups have opposed the plan.

At the most recent auction, the credits cost $13 a ton. Those revenues are then sent to the state to spend on anything from utility assistance and energy efficiency to green energy subsidies or, as Wolf has proposed, helping transition communities dependent on fossil fuel jobs. 

The state has projected it will receive $187 million in the first auction, though most of Wolf’s plans for the revenues will require legislative approval.

Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest carbon emitting state in the country, according to federal data. According to state accounting of that pollution, power plants make up a little more than one in four of the commonwealth’s 269 million metric tons of carbon released into the atmosphere.

These emissions trap additional heat in the atmosphere, increasing temperatures and sparking widespread changes to the world’s climate and ecology.

The world is getting warmer. What can Pennsylvania do about it?

According to the state’s climate assessment, average annual temperatures are expected to increase by almost 6 degrees fahrenheit in Pennsylvania by 2050 due to the rising global temperatures. The state will also see increased precipitation, leading to more flooding and landslides, and more extreme weather events. 

Research is split on whether  the regional compact is successful in its efforts to  reduces carbon emissions, or its impact on electricity prices. A 2017 Congressional research review concluded that the initiative may have had a negligible impact on greenhouse gases so far, but the program has also served as “a training ground” and example for larger carbon reduction efforts. 

Similar market-based programs have been used to fight acid rain by reducing sulfur emissions, including in Pennsylvania, but research also suggests such programs may only redistribute pollution, rather than eliminate it entirely.  

Either way, Wolf has made clear that getting RGGI passed is a top priority. Sources have told the Capital-Star he has brought up state funding as leverage to bring wary Democrats in line on the vote.

Wolf admin used state grant funding as leverage during debate on carbon fee

With the veto, the resolution returns to the Senate for a potential override. Such a vote requires a two-thirds majority, and neither the Senate nor the House passed the resolution with such a margin. Still, Wright said that the Senate “plans to take steps to override the governor’s actions.”

Legal action also appears likely. Republican lawmakers and power plant owners each have threatened to file  a lawsuit against the policy.

Pennsylvania’s status in the initiative also could change if the state’s next governor decides to take the commonwealth out of it. Wolf will leave office in January 2023 after serving the constitutional maximum of two, four-year terms.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.