Climate change is one of the four major crises President-elect Joe Biden hopes to tackle after he’s sworn into office in January. His goal is for the U.S. to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
In Pennsylvania, a high-polluting state with a history of coal and natural gas production, it’s fair to expect pushback on Biden’s plan from the Republican-controlled legislature and industry groups.
But some see a big opportunity for Pennsylvania to lead the charge into the clean energy economy that Biden is calling for.
“If we can figure out a way to do decarbonization in Pennsylvania, especially — a place that has legacy fossil fuel history — we can do it anywhere,” said Costa Samaras, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
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Biden said he wants to spend $2 trillion over the next four years to address climate change and build more resilient infrastructure.
It will be a major shift in attitude from President Donald Trump, who prioritized fossil fuels and vocally doubted climate science. Some believe the change in tone from the country’s chief executive is enough to have an impact on climate policy.
“Putting out that level of ambition matters for Americans as individuals understanding the scale of what we need to do together,” said Kate Knuth, a former Minnesota state lawmaker and founder of the project Democracy and Climate, “and for American corporations to bring their ingenuity and their innovation and their plain just hard work to actually make it happen.”
Biden’s plan relies on both executive action and Congress, where lawmakers could throw up roadblocks.
Knuth said even if Biden is opposed by lawmakers at the federal or state levels, he could find support among local leaders, like mayors, who are on the front lines of climate-related challenges like damaging storms.
Speeding Up the Transition in Pennsylvania
Oscar Serpell, a research associate at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, said Biden’s plan could speed up the pace of transition in Pennsylvania and the United States, but the shift is already underway.
He said power from renewables like wind and solar is some of the cheapest on the market and Pennsylvania is already well-positioned to take advantage.
“The business case has never been stronger and I think it will continue to get stronger every single year,” Serpell said.
He noted that economic markets can play a bigger role in energy’s future than a president’s policies. President Barack Obama was maligned by the coal industry for his “war on coal” while Trump campaigned on saving the industry. But more coal power plants closed in the U.S. under the Trump Administration than they did during Obama’s last four years in office.
Climate Compromise in Pennsylvania?
There is some expectation that Pennsylvania will continue to see fights over environmental policy, according to David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment. Republican lawmakers this year have been fighting Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s effort to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which aims to curb carbon emissions from the power sector.
But Masur said he sees a sweet spot for cooperation among Republicans and Democrats at the confluence of conservation and job creation.
For example, bills to encourage community solar and electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the General Assembly this session attracted bipartisan cosponsors. However, neither made it to the finish line.
Pennsylvania’s Republican leadership declined to respond, or did not respond, to interview requests for this story.
State Representative Leanne Krueger (D-Delaware), who sits on the House Environmental Resources and Energy committee, said she believes there can be consensus on an infrastructure plan.
“If we see an infrastructure plan coming out of the federal government that has real investment in clean energy and a real plan to create jobs, I think that there’s possibility to build broad support for that,” Krueger said.
Others agree public buy-in will be key to advancing Biden’s plan, and infrastructure and job creation are the ways to do that.
“People will need to feel and see economic benefits from this in a very short time in order for this to be durable,” said Samaras, at Carnegie Mellon.
One part of Biden’s plan that seems especially promising to Samaras is putting people to work plugging abandoned oil and gas wells, which leak the potent greenhouse gas methane. The state Department of Environmental Protection estimates there could be as many as 200,000 of them. Samaras said that could be a way to clean up the “energy of the past” while we also look for “ways to make the energy of the future competitive and widespread.”
He said the commonwealth has a history of innovation in the energy sphere and it could lead again in the transition to clean electricity generation and to electrify other big sources of pollution like transportation. He said that will create jobs to do things like installing new power lines and charging stations.
Samaras also sees a huge opportunity for jobs fixing Pennsylvania’s crumbling bridges, dams, rail systems, and schools and making them more resilient to the extreme weather that will accompany climate change.
That means designing those things to last for decades with heavier rain and hotter temperatures in mind. Examples include better stormwater management systems and planting more trees in urban areas to reduce heat island effects.
There is a lot of work ahead, said Josh McNeil of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania.
The group spent more than a million dollars trying to turn out environmentally minded voters this election. Although Biden won, Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation remains evenly split and Republicans across the state gained seats.
“If we want this thing to happen, it’s not enough that we voted,” McNeil said. “If we want to take action on climate change, the people of this state and people around the country are going to need to stay on the phones, calling their elected officials and demanding that it happens.”
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.