The Lead

In another clash with lawmakers, Wolf vetoes bill blocking his efforts to fight climate change

By: - September 24, 2020 4:20 pm

Gov. Tom Wolf (Commonwealth Media Services photo)

Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a bill that would have stripped his administration of the ability to regulate carbon emissions without legislative approval.

The proposal would have blocked his administration from entering the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, a group of 10 states that restrict carbon emissions from power plants in an effort to fight climate change.

“Given the urgency of the climate crisis facing Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth must take concrete, economically sound, and immediate steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Wolf said in a veto message to lawmakers on Thursday. “Allowing this legislation to become law would effectively deny that climate change is an urgent problem that demands prudent solutions.”

Pennsylvania releases roughly 264 million tons of carbon each year, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. About a third of that comes from power plants.

Last fall, Wolf signed an executive order to bring Pennsylvania into RGGI, pronounced “Reggie,” under state air pollution laws.

The program would require 58 power stations across the commonwealth to buy credits for every ton of carbon they release into the atmosphere. The number of credits sold every year would shrink, reducing the amount of carbon over time.

Modeling commissioned by the Department of Environmental Protection projects that under RGGI, carbon emissions from power plants would decline quicker than under the business as usual scenario.

By 2030, electricity production would release about 51 million tons, nine million less than would be released without any action.

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The program is expected to raise $300 million in revenue at first, before declining as carbon emissions decline.

The administration also claims RGGI will lead to a decrease in harmful air pollutants, but studies have found carbon regulations concentrate remaining emissions in communities of color.

States in the cap-and-trade program have spent the money raised by the initiative on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and utility aid programs, among other efforts. 

Pennsylvania could pursue similar initiatives without legislative authorization. But Wolf has floated steering the dollars into such initiatives as public transit, which might require legislative buy in.

The bill passed the General Assembly, splitting both parties. Western and northeastern Democrats, buoyed by the support of trade unions and the coal industry, supported the bill. But southeastern Republicans, who have close ties to the environmental community, voted against the bill.

Proponents of RGGI, including environmentalists and some businesses, such as food processors and clothing companies, have framed the program as a market friendly way to fight climate change by putting a price on carbon and giving businesses a choice on how to address their own emissions.

But opponents of RGGI have said the bill will harm regional economies still closely tied to coal, such as Indiana County in western Pennsylvania with its three coal power plants.

They add that statewide carbon emissions have gone down due to the replacement of coal with natural gas, and that emissions will simply cross state lines to unregulated neighboring states, costing Pennsylvania jobs.

“It will take collaboration between all of us to develop and implement energy policy that protects the environment and grows the economy,” Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry President and CEO Gene Barr said in a statement.

A separate regulatory board, filled with Wolf cabinet officials, approved RGGI last week. The plan will now advance through multiple rounds of public comment, legislative review, and a final regulatory oversight vote before it could go into effect. The Wolf administration is aiming for a 2021 roll out.

According to a ClimateNexus poll commissioned by Yale University and George Mason University, 80 percent of Pennsylvanians support action to limit carbon emissions from power plants.

The poll also found that using the revenue to help retrain workers and aid low income utility customers and small businesses, would increase support for the program.

The veto is Wolf’s 12th of the year. The bill fell short of the two-thirds majority required to overturn Wolf’s decision. Wolf has never had a veto overridden since he took office in 2015.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.