Pa. environmental board approves plan to limit carbon from power plants; Wolf admin sets 2022 target date

By: - September 15, 2020 3:30 pm

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

A state environmental review board gave the green light to a statewide cap-and-trade program Tuesday to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

The Environmental Quality Board voted 13-6 Tuesday to let Pennsylvania enter the multi-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. However, the program will not immediately become law. A host of hearings, votes, and reviews remain, including input from the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

The program, popularly known as RGGI (pronounced “Reggie”),  would place a fee on every ton of carbon dioxide released by 58 power stations in Pennsylvania. Companies releasing carbon must purchase credits to cover their emissions, and the number of credits sold declines over time.

Gov. Tom Wolf first announced the move last October, to combat climate change.

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“It puts a price on putting carbon in the atmosphere, so businesses find the most efficient way to do that,” Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The proposal has been the subject to organized opposition from the coal industry, trade unions representing plant employees, and Koch Brothers-backed conservative groups among others.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly has already passed legislation to block RGGI, but Wolf has also promised to veto it. Even further, Republicans leadership also has floated the idea of taking legal action, if necessary, to block the measure.

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In 2016, electricity generation released 80 million tons of greenhouse gases. Modeling commissioned by the state Department of Environmental Protection projected that electricity production would release about 51 million tons by 2030 under RGGI, 9 million less than would be released without any action.

Emissions from power plants are about a third of Pennsylvania’s 264 million tons of greenhouse gases released each year. Transportation and industrial activities are also big emitters.

Speaking during the meeting Tuesday, DEP Deputy Secretary Krishnan Ramamurthy said that auction proceeds could be used for a number of projects. But he argued that heavy investment in renewable energy and tech would let Pennsylvania preserve its status as an energy exporter.

Ramamurthy also argued that reducing carbon emissions would also reduce other harmful air pollutants that can cause health problems for those near power stations.

DEP’s modeling predicted that energy prices would increase by about 18 percent, from $27.20 per-megawatt hour to $32.80 per-megawatt hour by 2030 with the program.

The initiative was created in 2009 and it now includes 10 northeastern states. Both Republican and Democratic governors have joined the program and used its revenues to fund job retraining, energy efficiency, green energy investments and low-income utility aid.

Unlike the current member states, however, Pennsylvania is a coal-producing state, and still has five coal plants that employ thousands of union employees in rural counties.

But the industry is just a shadow of its former self. According to StateImpact, a NPR-project focused on energy, 42 coal-fired power plants have closed in recent years. Just 17 percent of Pennsylvania’s energy in 2019 came from coal, compared to almost 50 percent in 2010.

This precipitous fall is due to market forces. In particular, the rise of natural gas has driven down energy prices, hurting both coal and nuclear companies.

Industry allies raised concerns that generation will instead move to neighboring states such as Ohio and West Virginia rather than disappear. They also cited reduced emissions from the replacement of coal with cleaner burning gas 

“It seems the [power] sector is doing what it needs to do to drive numbers down without any mandate,” said Jim Welty, of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a natural gas lobbying group.

Pennsylvania’s emissions have gone down since 2005 due to natural gas replacing coal, which is also true nationally.

DEP and federal projections predict that carbon emissions will decrease, then begin to increase again due to the growth of gas.

Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest emitter of carbon in the United States, according to federal data. 

International scientists agree that the world must reduce carbon dioxide emissions to net zero, by 2060 to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

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Research has shown a mixed effect, and reductions in carbon emissions by northeastern states cannot be totally credited to the program. But environmentalists mostly agree that a price for carbon is a start to addressing the climate.

“A majority of Pennsylvanians support stronger action to fight climate change and, with this action, they will have a chance for their voice to be heard,”  PennFuture, an environmental advocacy group, said in a statement.

Using RGGI’s projected $300 million in initial revenue on more than energy efficiency initiatives would likely require legislative action. But the Republican majority in the General Assembly has not shown any interest in tackling the problem. 

In fact, House Environmental Resource and Energy Committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, hosted two hearings with climate skeptics who said increased CO2 is good. He also serves on the EQB, and voted no.

The board also rejected numerous efforts to expand public comment, as well as holding an in-person meeting in Indiana County, home to three coal plants.

The four-hour meeting ended with sharp words from Mark Caskey, president of Canonsburg-based Steel Nation, an engineering firm.

“You leftist Green New Dealers can’t even give Indiana County coal miners and utility workers a f***ing hearing in their own county,” Caskey said.

Jessica Shirley, DEP’s policy director, responded that the agency would try to make an in-person meeting in Indiana County amid the pandemic work. 

The administration aims to have RGGI in place by January 2022, assuming it receives final approval, according to a DEP spokesperson.

Public comment will be open until Nov. 30. 

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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.