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State senators are weighing the risks and benefits of Pennsylvania joining a regional cap-and trade-program targeting greenhouse gases.

The Senate Environmental Resources and Energy committee on Tuesday invited regulators, industry representatives, and environmental advocates to talk about the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). 

The hearing came the day after Governor Tom Wolf granted a six-week extension for his administration to draft a plan to join the effort. Under his initial timeline, the draft plan was to go before the Environmental Quality Board for a vote in July.

Secretary of Environmental Protection Patrick McDonnell said his department will use the time to address feedback, reach out to affected communities, and strengthen the proposed regulation before it goes up for public comment. 

Supporters and Opponents of Cap-and-Trade

Under RGGI, power plants have to pay for the carbon dioxide they emit.

Opponents at the Senate hearing said that will push coal-fired generators out of the state, killing Pennsylvania coal jobs prematurely and hurting surrounding communities. 

“Reducing CO2 via RGGI is a great talking point but it doesn’t actually reduce CO2, it merely shifts the generation to other states that do not tax,” said Rachel Gleason, executive director of Pennsylvania Coal Alliance.  

Supporters said joining is necessary to help cut emissions and prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Tom Schuster, who directs the Clean Energy program for the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club, said while RGGI would speed up coal’s decline, it would also bring in money that the state wouldn’t see otherwise. 

“A significant portion of that can and should be invested in ways that help diversify local economies and employ workers in areas where power plants retire,” he said.

Coal Shrinks No Matter What

DEP projections show that, regardless of whether the state joins RGGI, Pennsylvania’s reliance on coal will shrink from 47 percent of its electricity portfolio in 2010 to barely 1 percent in 2030 because of a market that favors cheaper natural gas.

“I’d much rather take 10 years than 18 months,” said Senator Joe Pittman (R-Indiana). He said the conversation around RGGI is already causing disinvestment in his district, which is home to three coal-fired power plants. 

Pittman is sponsoring a bill that would require legislative approval for Pennsylvania to participate in RGGI, one of a few measures in the General Assembly aiming to stop the process.

The governor is trying to join RGGI through executive order

Pennsylvania is the fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter in the country. DEP estimates RGGI participation will prevent 180 million tons of carbon emissions between 2022 and 2030.

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.