Pennsylvania is nearing the finish line in an effort to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative after a vote from a key oversight board Wednesday.
The Independent Regulatory Review Commission heard more than four hours of public comment before voting 3 to 2 to approve the regulation.
The Keystone State would be the first major fossil fuel-producing state to put a price on carbon dioxide.
The Attorney General’s Office will give a final review to the regulation before publication. The Wolf Administration hopes to join the program in early 2022.
RGGI, a cap-and-trade program among 11 northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, aims to cut carbon emissions by charging power plants for each ton of pollution they emit. A carbon price makes dirtier sources of power less competitive selling electricity to the grid. As they generate less power, cleaner sources can ramp up, lowering overall emissions.
Opponents say RGGI would be an unauthorized tax on the state’s energy producers. They say it will hurt local economies that depend on coal-related jobs, as well as have ripple effects through the wider economy.
“This is nothing more than an assassination of blue-collar jobs across PA, which in turn will disrupt and ruin thousands of families, mine included,” said Eric Baker, who works for the coal-fired Keystone Generating Station in Armstrong County.
Supporters of joining RGGI say the program is an important first step for Pennsylvania to address climate change because it will help draw down greenhouse gas emissions that are warming Earth. They also say cutting pollution will have health benefits for the state.
Some Democratic lawmakers have proposed legislation to use money generated from RGGI to help ease the transition in affected communities. The Department of Environmental Protection expects the program to raise $131 million to $187 million dollars annually.
Cambria County resident Kim Anderson, with the Evangelical Environmental Network, said the state doesn’t have to choose between a strong economy and people’s health.
“We must use RGGI to both clean up God’s creation and help workers and families,” she said.
Pennsylvania has a long history of coal mining and produces more natural gas than any state except Texas. It ranked fourth in the U.S. for carbon emissions as of 2018, the most recent ranking by the federal Energy Information Administration.
Widener University Commonwealth Law School professor John Dernbach said Pennsylvania is also one of the few states that offers a constitutional right to a clean environment.
“Our supreme court held in July of this year that when the commonwealth acts as a trustee, it must consider an incredibly long time and cannot prioritize the needs of the living over those yet to be born,” he said.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has been pushing to join RGGI as a main pillar of his climate agenda. He directed DEP to draft a regulation to join through an executive order in 2019. Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia are in the program now.
Republicans and some Democrats oppose joining. The legislature could pass a disapproval resolution, but it’s unclear whether it can come up with a veto-proof majority.
Business and fossil fuel groups are calling for lawmakers to support the disapproval effort.
“We appreciate their courage to stand up against Governor Wolf and well-funded radical environmental groups, and instead side with organized labor and the thousands of blue-collar and union families and communities directly impacted by RGGI,” the Power PA Jobs Alliance said in a statement.
Environmental groups hailed Wednesday’s vote. Mark Szybist with the Natural Resources Defense Council called it “the most important climate action that Pennsylvania has taken in more than a decade.”
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.