By Kiley Bense
On Tuesday, April 11, a group of representatives handpicked from Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industries, labor unions, and environmental organizations met secretly for the first time in the Forest Room at the historic Keystone Building in Harrisburg, the state capital.
The goal of their meetings, set by Gov. Josh Shapiro and his aides, was to reach a consensus on an issue that Pennsylvanians have debated for years: the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. Would joining the initiative, a multistate market mechanism for addressing climate change, benefit Pennsylvania, or not?
Among those invited to participate were Hilary Mercer, a senior vice president at Shell; Lael Campbell, a vice president at Constellation Energy, which operates power plants; and David Masur, executive director of Penn Environment, according to documents obtained from the governor’s office by Inside Climate News in a request filed under the state’s Right to Know law.
The list also included Zachery Smith, director of government relations at CNX Resources; Sean Lane, an executive vice president at Olympus Power, an independent plant operator; Jim Snell, business manager for Steamfitters Local Union 420, and Shawn Steffee, a business agent and board trustee for Boilermakers Local 154. The full list was redacted for unexplained reasons, and it is unknown how many people were invited in all.
A review of the 157 pages of documents reveals the energy expended by the Shapiro administration in setting up the group early this year and in keeping the details of its deliberations from becoming public.
From emails to memos to agendas, the material also portrays a governor’s office devoted to pragmatism, given the divide on the RGGI issue and within the state’s political power structure. Critics of RGGI, including the coal and gas industry, contend that the market system will eliminate jobs and hurt customers’ wallets in Pennsylvania, while advocates argue that it is an important tool for combating climate change and will accelerate a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
An agenda for the April 11 meeting indicates that Shapiro, who took office in January, would appear in person at the outset of the two-hour session to underline his expectations for a group encompassing RGGI opponents and supporters.
According to the documents, the governor wanted participants not only to investigate basic questions about how the RGGI system functions but also more complicated ones, sizing up how RGGI “performs” when evaluated against his specified principles: “(1) protect consumers, (2) reduce emissions and (3) create jobs.”
The documents released by the governor’s office gave no indication of what views were expressed on RGGI’s merits or drawbacks at the meeting or at a subsequent session, which was held on May 2, according to the materials. No minutes, memos or summaries were included among the documents.
How the RGGI Market Works
RGGI works by requiring power plants in each member state to buy allowances for their carbon dioxide emissions, thereby driving up the price of “dirtier” sources of power like coal, oil and gas. The funding raised from the allowances, auctioned quarterly, flows to the state where those emitters are located. Twelve Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states are enrolled in the consortium—including Pennsylvania, although its membership is currently in limbo.
The Environmental Defense Fund reported last year that member states had reduced carbon pollution by 73 percent since 2008, when the first auction was held. Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist based at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that exiting RGGI would show that Shapiro has a “lack of seriousness” about climate change.
One of Shapiro’s campaign promises outlined a goal for Pennsylvania to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and RGGI would be an important step toward reaching that goal, Mann said.
The documents shed light on the governor’s reasoning for keeping the advisory group’s meetings secret while its participants weighed the membership issue. In an email on March 30, Jacob Finkel, deputy secretary on policy and planning in the governor’s office, explained Shapiro’s “perspective.”
“He wants the work group to be independent and to have a real opportunity to reach a middle ground between the competing interests that are represented,” Finkel wrote.
The group was designed to avoid “repeating back a pre-formed conception (which we don’t have) from the administration on what the result should be,” he continued. The email warns its recipient not to share its contents: “To reiterate, please keep this and all that we’re discussing strictly between us.”
It is not clear whether Shapiro is really waiting for the group’s decision on RGGI, or the administration views the group as an opportunity to encourage stakeholders from all sides to meet in person and reach some kind of compromise on emissions in Pennsylvania, one that they are invested in and feel they could live with.
In a statement about the working group provided to Inside Climate News, Shapiro’s press secretary, Manuel Bonder, wrote: “Governor Shapiro is focused on developing a comprehensive climate and energy policy that protects and creates energy jobs, takes real action to address climate change, protects consumers and ensures Pennsylvania has reliable, affordable, and clean power for the long term.
“As he committed to doing while running for this office, the governor has convened a group of environmental, labor, and business leaders to work together and recommend solutions that meet this test.”
For Pennsylvania, a Membership in Limbo
RGGI has been a matter of intense political debate in Pennsylvania since the fall of 2019, when Shapiro’s predecessor, Democrat Tom Wolf, announced that the state would join the cooperative via executive order. “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,” Wolf said, “we need to get serious right now about addressing the climate crisis.”
In retaliation, Senate Republicans delayed Wolf’s nominations to the state Public Utility Commission. Interests affiliated with coal and labor sued the state to block it from joining last year, and Pennsylvania’s participation has since been in limbo.
During his campaign for governor, Shapiro promised to review Pennsylvania’s RGGI membership in consultation with experts from both sides of the issue, and the group the administration has put together fulfills that promise. But the administration’s messaging around the group and its stance on RGGI have been mixed from the start.
In March, Richard Negrin, then the acting secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said at a state Senate hearing that the administration would be “announcing the members of that committee going forward.” So far the state has only officially named the co-chairs: Jackson Morris, who oversees energy matters for the National Resources Defense Council’s Northern region, and Mike Dunleavy, former business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union No. 5.
The governor’s 2023-24 budget proposal included $663 million that would be generated by state participation in RGGI and spent on “greenhouse gas abatement, energy efficiency, and clean and renewable energy programs,” raising questions about whether Shapiro had already made up his mind about remaining a member. Conservative lawmakers and labor interests criticized the budget proposal’s assumption. When asked about RGGI’s inclusion in the proposal in March, Negrin said it “would be irresponsible not to put it in the budget, because it’s a thing right now that we’re considering.”
“We’re not here to advocate for RGGI. We’re not here to advocate against RGGI,” he said. “It’s in the budget, obviously, because it’s an open matter in litigation.”
Although Shapiro’s inaugural address in January hardly mentioned climate change or the environment, planning for the RGGI group began behind closed doors in February, with invitations sent to potential members, queries fielded, memos composed, and emails written seeking recommendations from key players in the state’s energy industry and labor unions on who should take part. Some of the recipients of this outreach seemed surprised.
A lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Grade Crude Oil Coalition, which represents conventional oil and gas interests, wrote back with enthusiasm about the possibility of someone from the PGCC joining the group. “They are very encouraged by your invitation!!!!” he wrote.
For the first meeting in April, “draft ground rules” for the group were shared, including directives designed to promote civil debate like “listen respectfully, without interrupting,” and “explore interests, not positions. Leave your ‘team jersey’ home and come as an individual who understands your team’s interests.”
While the group’s mandate seems focused on figuring out how RGGI “serves” the interests of the members or doesn’t, the first agenda included an opening to discuss other approaches to cutting greenhouse gases beyond RGGI. One of the discussion questions was: “What other approaches to reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants should be explored by the group?”
When the group met again in May, it went over the early history of RGGI, beginning with the work of George Pataki, the former Republican governor of New York, who “proposed RGGI to his counterparts in other Northeast and mid-Atlantic states.”
The documents contain several pages of email correspondence between Finkel and a former utility executive and energy expert, who expressed doubts about the open-ended nature of the RGGI group’s structure.
“There are right and wrong questions to ask,” the expert wrote. “Just so difficult to wade through all of the considerations when the group is composed of vested interests who begin with pushing their respective agenda. It is an unusual person who will admit when their views are not in the public interest.”
What the State Held Back
In its Right to Know request for documents, filed in late May, Inside Climate News had asked for any material relating to the RGGI working group, including memos, minutes, agendas, emails, schedules, presentations, and letters. Under Pennsylvania law, “all state and local government agency records are presumed to be public” unless they fall under a specific exemption; most of those are related to protecting personal information like Social Security numbers, home addresses and phone numbers. The records released, some of which were redacted, date from February to April 2023.
In releasing the documents, the governor’s office said that the redacted words and any records that were withheld were “protected by the attorney-client or attorney work product or executive privileges, records that would reflect internal, predecisional deliberations between agency personnel or officials, records or portions of records that would reveal personal identification information.”
Also excluded or redacted, it said, were “records of notes and working papers prepared by or for a public official or agency employee used solely for that official’s or employee’s own personal use.”
Political experts say that Shapiro’s behind-the-scenes, all-voices-at-the-table approach to the membership issue is likely driven by the fact that Pennsylvania, like two other states in the RGGI consortium, has a divided government. “When you have divided government, you have to have a semblance of bipartisanship,” said Larry Ceisler, a public relations executive in Pennsylvania who works with political figures as well as corporations and nonprofits. It’s “nice” to “be able to reach across the aisle,” Ceisler said. “But in reality, it’s the only practical way to do these things.”
Ceisler pointed to the state’s ongoing fight over school vouchers as an example of what can happen when divisive issues are negotiated publicly. “Keeping them out of public view is a way to alleviate pressures from different interests and allow this group to work together and then come to a solution,” he said of the RGGI group.
Environmentalists in Pennsylvania generally support the state’s participation in RGGI, but some are disappointed by the secrecy around the governor’s working group and the lack of a larger climate action plan beyond joining the consortium. “I wish all of this was more transparent, but I also wish they were having a more robust conversation,” said Karen Feridun, a co-founder of the Better Path Coalition, an environmental collective whose letter to the governor was shared internally by Shapiro staffers working on RGGI.
“If there was ever any use for something like RGGI, it was long ago,” Feridun said. “It just feels completely out of step with where we really are.” She pointed to the Climate Clock, a countdown to the point at which it will be too late to stop the planet from warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius. In July, the clock, displayed in the state capitol building in Harrisburg, rolled over from six years left to five.
It may not constitute a comprehensive climate plan on its own, but judging from ongoing studies, participating in RGGI could have a significant impact on Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions. Research from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy concluded that for Pennsylvania, joining RGGI “could potentially reduce its emissions, generate additional revenue and see minimal to no impact on electricity rates.”
By 2030, RGGI could reduce emissions from the state’s electricity sector emissions by 84 percent from 2020 levels while decreasing coal and gas output and expanding renewable energy production, the center reported. Power plants are a major source of climate pollution in Pennsylvania, and the state ranked fourth nationally in 2020 for greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from Environment America.
Pennsylvania’s Summer of Extreme Weather
The RGGI working group is meeting against a backdrop of cascading environmental challenges for the governor in his first six months in office, from flooding and tornadoes in eastern Pennsylvania to the lingering effects of the East Palestine train derailment on the western border. Last month, flash floods killed at least five peoplein Bucks County; in the Lehigh Valley, another storm inundated streets and parking lots, leaving cars stranded. Two toddlers went missing after the flooding on July 16. (The body of the 2-year-old was recovered from the Delaware River on July 21.)
In June, wildfire smoke drifting south from Canada blanketed the state, shrouding the Philadelphia skyline in a thick gray haze and briefly making the air quality the worst of any major city in the world. In Pittsburgh, public pools were closed, summer camp programs were canceled, and residents were warned to stay indoors if possible.
Since Shapiro became governor, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has also issued at least 20 air quality warnings, many of them covering large swaths of the state. Nine warnings were issued over the same period in 2022. The June 2023 National Climate Report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists Pennsylvania as having its second warmest daytime temperatures on record for this year’s January to June period; NOAA also noted drought and wildfire within the state in June along with torrential rain and three tornadoes.
On July 16, a freight train derailed in Montgomery County, where Shapiro grew up, prompting an evacuation; while the exact cause is still unknown, the operator, CSX, cited the weather. Across the country, the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events is linked to climate change, and the Center for Climate Integrity recently estimated that Pennsylvania’s costs for climate adaptation could reach $15 billion by 2040.
After the flooding on July 9, not far from where she lives in Berks County, Feridun watched Shapiro address the fallout. She wondered how much money would be needed to rebuild and recover—and how long it would be until next time. “It’s just going to get worse,” she said. “Everything is happening way too fast. We need big, drastic actions.”
Shapiro the Pragmatist
Shapiro has long been known as an adept and pragmatic politician. In June, he put that reputation on the line when a portion of I-95 in Northeast Philadelphia collapsed after a tanker truck carrying 8,500 gallons of gasoline crashed and caught fire. He promised to have the highway reopen within two weeks.
“I said we’d be all hands on deck to rebuild I-95—and I meant it,” he tweeted on June 14. “We are going to show Philadelphia, the Commonwealth, and the world our grittiness, toughness, and ingenuity—and get this road reopened safely and as quickly as possible.” The road was reopened to traffic 12 days after it was shut down.
“One thing about Josh Shapiro is that he’s a very results-oriented person,” Ceisler said. “I think that is evidenced by what just happened on the I-95 bridge collapse.” Referring to the RGGI working group, he said: “I think that there’s a method to the way they’re doing things. And I never question his commitment to clean air and water in the state.”
Feridun drew a different conclusion from the positive press around the I-95 collapse and Shapiro’s insistence on—and delivery of—a speedy solution. “We did that in two weeks,” she said. “Imagine how quickly you can solve the climate crisis if you actually wanted to. He loves making it look like he’s capable of these bold actions. Well, we need bold action. Where are you?”
For now, advocates for and against joining the consortium are waiting to see when Shapiro will announce more about the group and what its conclusions might be. They’re also watching the pending lawsuits. In May, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases. The legal dispute centers on whether Wolf’s executive order to join RGGI was unconstitutional and infringed on the powers of the state legislature, so it could impact Shapiro’s ability to act on the issue as well.
On June 23, the governor gave a press conference to celebrate the I-95 victory, standing at a podium that read “Rebuilding I-95” while surrounded by construction workers. “We rebuilt I-95 in just 12 days. Through that process we showed the nation what Philadelphia and Pennsylvania are all about,” Shapiro said, praising the round-the-clock efforts of the workers who were involved in the repairs.
“When we work together,” he said, “we can get stuff done.”