By Joseph Otis Minott
The House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee’s Feb. 5 hearing was a colossal waste of time and taxpayer resources. Even worse, it spread false and deliberately misleading information about a proven approach to fighting climate change. There was no attempt to debate solutions in a fair and civil public forum.
The hearing should have been an opportunity for an open discussion on Pennsylvania joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-invest program that creates economic incentives for reducing carbon emissions from power plants.
Gov. Tom Wolf announced that his administration would establish a Pennsylvania program designed to join the 10 other states in RGGI, but conservative lawmakers have introduced legislation to block that effort.
Despite this meaningful policy disagreement, there was no debate about RGGI at the hearing. The Capital-Star called it “one-sided.” That’s being generous. It was a farce. In reality, it was a RGGI-bashing session led by coal industry execs and orchestrated by committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler.
As the Capital Star reported, Metcalfe invited a dozen anti-RGGI speakers. He invited zero RGGI supporters or anyone from the state agency actually tasked with evaluating and implementing the program. That’s right, not one single climate scientist, green energy industry representative or policymaker from states where RGGI is already working was invited to speak.
It’s not possible to refute every false and misleading claim that came out of the hearing in one op-ed. But Commonwealth residents deserve to know the truth about a few critical facts when it comes to RGGI and the future of our environment.
First, Governor Wolf’s administration has clear and considerable authority under existing law to join RGGI and adopt a program to control carbon pollution from power plants. The state Air Pollution Control Act delegates this power to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), leaving RGGI opponents straining to argue that this market-based program somehow constitutes a “tax.”
This argument is misinformed and not supported by any caselaw. The program is not designed for the purpose of raising revenue — like a tax — but instead to eliminate air pollution using a market-based approach, and it will not fund general government services.
The second fact the public must understand is that we have more work to do beyond RGGI to reduce carbon emissions in Pennsylvania.
Several speakers suggested that carbon emissions in Pennsylvania are effectively decreasing faster than the science shows we need. While power sector emissions have indeed declined in the past decade – largely because old, dirty coal-fired power plants cannot compete in the modern marketplace – the Commonwealth still has a long way to go to meet Wolf’s climate commitments.
The electric power sector is only responsible for roughly one-third of Pennsylvania’s net greenhouse gas emissions, and Pennsylvania still has the fifth-dirtiest power sector in the country. DEP has also made clear that, if we do nothing, our power sector emissions will start rising again in the near future. This would be catastrophic.
Finally, RGGI is a proven approach to addressing climate change. Several testifiers argued that curbed emissions here would simply pop up in other states that do not participate in RGGI, and Pennsylvania would become an importer of energy. These industry representatives don’t seem to understand that Pennsylvania can structure its program to mitigate emissions “leakage.”
The stats used to argue that Pennsylvania’s electric generation will decline under RGGI lacked any context and were cherry-picked from studies that were not even about RGGI. DEP is doing modeling analysis right now to determine how best to structure a RGGI-compatible program to achieve Pennsylvania-specific needs and goals. When DEP completes its study, those relevant findings will expose the absurd doom and gloom rhetoric.
Based on a recent Acadia Center report, RGGI states have achieved significant results over the past decade. They have reduced power sector CO2 pollution by 47 percent since 2009 and have done so without losses in jobs or increases in electricity costs. Indeed, electricity prices have fallen in the RGGI states, and their GDP growth has outpaced the rest of the country.
Sham hearings like this have become par for the course for Metcalfe, who seems to enjoy both denying environmentalists a seat at the table and using them as a verbal punching bag. Pennsylvania taxpayers and all those concerned about the future of our planet deserve better from our legislative leadership.
Metcalfe and his industry supporters want you to think that we have to choose between good jobs and a healthy environment. This is a false choice. We can achieve both if polluters do their fair share.
Joseph Otis Minott is the executive director and chief counsel of the Clean Air Council. He writes from Philadelphia.