Can carbon capture fit into Pennsylvania’s climate solutions?

Republicans think yes, Wolf is a maybe, some environmentalists are a hard no

By: - February 20, 2022 7:33 am

Keystone Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Armstrong County, about 50 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. (Capital-Star photo)

After more than two years of trying to block a carbon-pricing scheme for Pennsylvania, legislative Republicans have introduced a counter offer.

Earlier this month, GOP lawmakers in the House added an extra provision to a bill blocking the commonwealth from entering the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

The initiative, also known as RGGI, mandates that power plant owners buy credits for every ton of carbon they release into the atmosphere. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf began the process to bring Pennsylvania into the initiative with an executive order in fall 2019.

The GOP proposal would put $250 million of unspent federal stimulus money into job retraining programs for fossil fuel workers, stormwater projects, and oil and gas well plugging.

But the biggest chunk of funding would go to research, development and construction of carbon and methane reduction technologies for power plants and manufacturers.

Buoyed by the opposition of business groups and the state’s building trade unions, legislative opponents have made several bipartisan pushes to block RGGI. But have so far failed to get the votes to override Wolf’s veto pen.

Currently, its implementation is held up in court over a procedural battle between Wolf and the GOP legislature, though the state was due to enter the interstate initiative this year.

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

“We were hopeful RGGI wouldn’t move forward,” state Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, told the Capital-Star. “Now we’re at a point where we have to look at other options.”

Seeing the reality, Struzzi, who is sponsoring the legislation to block RGGI and the counter offer,  said carbon capture is a chance to have a “mutually inclusive” future of renewable energy with legacy fossil fuel infrastructure.

Carbon capture refers to the technology power plants or other industrial facilities use that prevents them from releasing greenhouse gasses.

Struzzi represents a western Pennsylvania county that has three of the state’s remaining coal-fired power plants within or near its borders. One of the plants, in Homer City, already has announced plans to shut down one of its two generators, citing a number of issues, including RGGI.

Studies are split on RGGI’s effect. 

Proponents hope that putting a price on carbon will incentivize power companies to reduce carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the revenue from these credits — totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars — goes to the state, which can spend them on alternative energy, utility assistance, or energy efficiency projects.

Pa. set to enter northeastern initiative limiting carbon from power plants

Opponents, however, argue RGGI will do nothing besides shut down Pennsylvania plants, costing union jobs. Those plant owners will then shift operations across state lines, leading to no total decrease in overall greenhouse gas emissions, while increasing utility prices for consumers.

“I am for a diversified portfolio,” Struzzi added. “That includes all of the above. If we can find another way to control carbon emissions without putting our electricity generation in jeopardy then we should be exploring the options.”

Wolf has, at times, seemed interested in carbon capture. He signed a bipartisan letter with other governors from fossil fuel producing states in 2021 asking Congress to approve a bill to provide federal support for a network of carbon storage sites.

But Struzzi’s plan, attached to his bill to block RGGI entirely, does not have buy-in from the Wolf administration.

In an email, Wolf spokesperson Beth Rementer said Republicans were creating a false choice “between investments to reduce emissions and regulations that would help us address the climate crisis.”

“Given the importance of this issue, we urgently need both,” she added.

Environmental advocates are split on the uses for carbon capture. Most agree that it is needed, particularly for heavy industry such as steel, cement, and fertilizer manufacturing. 

Noting the latter, Wolf’s 2022 budget called for spending $100,000 to build a strategic plan for industrial sector decarbonization, focused on using $12 billion in federal funds from the bipartisan infrastructure bill to capture and store carbon.

“Pennsylvania should leverage its energy sources, strong industrial base and workforce to lead in this area,” Rementer added.

But other environmentalists and policy analysts think using the technology to keep coal- or gas-fired power plants around longer production is a bad use of limited resources.

Sean O’Leary, of the Ohio River Valley Institute, a progressive think-tank focused on sustainable policy for Appalachia, told the Capital-Star that, barring state subsidies or other financial incentives, the per-unit cost of carbon scrubbing will equal if not exceed the price per megawatt of electricity produced.

Therefore, states hoping to reduce carbon emissions and build out sustainable energy should focus on expanding renewables or energy efficiency, which he argued are more tried-and-true solutions.

“We really do need to have people start asking the question: If we’re to implement [carbon capture], how much would it cost, and how would we pay for it?” O’Leary said. “Who would pay for it?”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.