HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf took a step toward capping greenhouse gas emissions from power plants Thursday, part of an effort to fight climate change in a heavily populated and fossil fuel-rich state that has long been one of the nation’s biggest polluters and power producers.
Wolf, a Democrat, ordered his administration to start working on regulations to bring Pennsylvania into a nine-state consortium of Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states that sets a price and limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
Joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative could face pushback from the Republican-controlled Legislature, which is historically protective of Pennsylvania’s influential coal and natural gas industries.
“If we want a Pennsylvania that is habitable for our children and our grandchildren, where temperatures aren’t in the 90s as they were yesterday in October, and flooding doesn’t destroy homes and businesses over and over again, we need to get serious right now about addressing the climate crisis,” Wolf told a news conference Thursday in his Capitol offices.
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Pennsylvania is the nation’s fourth-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and its third-biggest electric power state.
At almost 40%, Pennsylvania’s energy sector is its largest emitter of carbon dioxide, according to government figures. Under the cap-and-trade program, its dozens of power plants fueled by coal, oil and natural gas could be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars annually that the state could then spend on clean energy efforts.
Pennsylvania would be, by far, the biggest emissions state in the consortium. It emits about 92 million tons a year, compared with the consortium’s 2019 cap of 80.2 million tons.
In consortium states, owners of power plants fueled by coal, oil or natural gas with a capacity of 25 megawatts must buy a credit for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit. The earliest Pennsylvania could reasonably join and see the program take effect is 2021.
Wolf’s aides have approached Republican lawmakers in recent months about passing legislation to authorize the move, without success.
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The governor’s administration has maintained that it can write regulations for the cap-and-trade program under its existing authority to regulate air pollution, although Wolf acknowledged the process would eventually need “buy-in” from lawmakers.
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Wolf also said his administration would need to make sure that the “transition to a cleaner energy mix does not leave workers and communities behind.” He said he did not know to what extent the program’s cost on dirtier power plants would trickle down to the state’s ratepayers.
Reaction from Republican lawmakers and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry was mixed Thursday, with vows to protect the state’s homegrown industries and ratepayers, and an insistence that Wolf’s regulations reflect their views.
“Climate change is real and so is the need to have the business community at the table to discuss solutions and consider the tradeoffs,” the chamber’s CEO, Gene Barr, said in a prepared statement.
House Republican leaders struck a more oppositional tone, saying they strongly disagree with Wolf’s “go-it-alone” approach and warned that Wolf’s administration doesn’t have the authority to “bind” Pennsylvania into multistate agreements without approval from lawmakers.
In addition to Philadelphia, at least two other counties, Cumberland and Northampton counties, have agreed to purchase or lease the machines.
“Gov. Tom Wolf took it upon himself to make a decision that will negatively impact all Pennsylvanians, particularly those in lower income brackets, the same people he claims to be looking out for,” said Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-Cumberland and York counties. “Continuing with his actions to proclaim Pennsylvania is closed for business, Wolf committed the commonwealth to participate in a national cap-and-trade agreement without the legal authority to do so. This is completely unacceptable, and I hope the Legislature does not stand for it.
“I find it extremely disturbing Wolf single-handedly wants to pursue a policy to ensure natural gas drillers will increase profits at a time when he’s pushing for increased taxes on the natural gas industry. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I must question why Wolf would venture down this policy road on the heels of his statewide campaign to drum up support for his latest scheme to increase taxes on drillers. This latest turn of events stinks of a plan to simply increase tax revenue for the state on the backs of hard-working Pennsylvanians.”
In the meantime, Wolf’s administration is reviewing a regulatory petition filed last year by more than 60 parties, including solar energy firms, that is pursuing a broader, California-style cap-and-trade program seeking to make Pennsylvania carbon neutral by 2052.