The Lead

Trade unions join the fight against Wolf’s interstate initiative to limit carbon emissions

By: - December 21, 2019 6:30 am

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Lawmakers opposed to Pennsylvania entering an interstate compact limiting carbon emissions have gained a valuable ally — building trade unions.

Frank Sirianni, president of the Pennsylvania State Building & Construction Trades Council, told the Capital-Star that the group’s leadership voted unanimously this week to back a bill barring  Gov. Tom Wolf from entering the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

“We were concerned for the thousands of jobs our members will lose and also we’re concerned with the lack of power generation supplied to the grid,” without coal, Sirianni said.

The group includes over a dozen trade unions, representing 130,000 electricians, carpenters, boilermakers and other professions statewide.

Among those workers are hundreds of coal power station employees, represented by the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers. And when the plants need to be repaired, union trade workers often take the job, Sirianni said.

Coal power stations produced 14 percent of the state’s electricity, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Wolf begins process to bring Pennsylvania into regional cap-and-trade program

Coal use plays into the 287 million metric tons of carbon Pennsylvania emitted in 2015, according to the most recent Pennsylvania Greenhouse Gas Inventory, compiled by the Department of Environmental Protection. 

Federal data places the commonwealth among the top carbon polluting states in the country.

Citing climate change concerns, Wolf announced in October that he was entering Pennsylvania into RGGI, a regional cap-and-trade program in the northeastern United States that limits the carbon emissions from electricity production. 

Revenues from the RGGI program can then be invested “in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other consumer benefit programs,” according to its website

Sirianni acknowledged that investment in solar or wind alternatives would create construction jobs. But those jobs not would be not enough to keep trade workers employed, Sirianni said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2,602 workers in Pennsylvania worked in fossil fuel electric power generation as of June 2019. They have an average yearly salary of $128,232.

The BLS lists 46 workers in the wind-powered electricity generation, who earn an annual salary for wind energy workers was $91,936. There was no BLS data available for workers in the solar industry. 

Wolf contends he has the authority to make the move without legislative authorization. But lawmakers — mostly Republicans, but including some Democrats — have disagreed, and see the move as executive overreach.

Republicans leaders have suggested a legal challenge. But they’re first attempting to pass a bill that states the governor may not take “action that is designed to abate, control or limit carbon dioxide emissions” without legislative approval.

Wolf has made it clear he hopes to work with the General Assembly to build state laws around the cap-and-trade program. That includes seeking input on how to spend the estimated $250 to $400 million a year in cap-and-trade revenue.

But Wolf also “opposes any effort to weaken the administration’s authority to ensure clean air for Pennsylvanians,” administration spokesman J.J. Abbott said. 

Sirianni told the Capital-Star this week that the trade council will be “putting all our efforts into this issue.” But he also suggested there was still time to work out a compromise with Wolf.

“We’re hoping we come up, collectively, with a solution that accommodates everyone,” Sirianni said.

The addition of building trades to the coalition opposing RGGI increases the odds that the preemption legislation could gain traction.

The trades support helped build broad Democratic support for expanding immigration status checks for construction employees this year. 

The General Assembly passed the proposal with a wide, veto-proof majority despite concerns from immigration advocates. Pressured to veto, Wolf instead let the bill lapse into law without his signature.

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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.