By Joseph Otis Minott
It’s hard to overstate the impact of COVID-19 on virtually all aspects of life.
In just the last few weeks, we’ve had to come to terms with a new reality in how we work, socialize, and communicate. With more than 27,000 confirmed cases in Pennsylvania (and that number is growing), millions of workers are facing layoffs and entire industries face tremendous uncertainty about the future.
As individuals and families navigate these uncertainties, federal, state and local lawmakers must work to provide some relief during this unprecedented public health and economic crisis. Federal stimulus packages and ongoing state funding decisions will shape how and whether various communities and industries will survive in the months ahead.
Direct aid to people who are hurting is critical, but government officials also need to make major and enduring investments to support a better future once the economy and society re-emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown. That means taking a hard look at where support will have the most positive economic impact not just in the weeks and months to come, but in the years and generations to come. Here in Pennsylvania, there’s an opportunity to create a generation of good jobs and a more sustainable future through renewable energy and energy efficiency.
The most recent federal relief package, a $2 trillion spending bill known as the CARES Act, will provide nearly $5 billion in funds to the state government of Pennsylvania, in addition to direct payments to individuals and families. However, the state funds must be used only for necessary expenditures incurred because of COVID-19. Given the need for additional federal stimulus measures in the near future, Congress must next focus on investments to create millions of new sustainable, career-track green jobs in clean energy expansion and infrastructure construction.
The wind, solar and energy efficiency industries have the fastest-growing occupations in the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Pennsylvania, clean energy employs twice the number of workers as the fossil fuel industry. As businesses recover and navigate the new normal, tax cuts and low-cost loan programs prioritizing investments in clean energy can help spur economic growth and put people back to work.
Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry, never one to waste a crisis, is still lobbying hard for a bailout to maintain, and even deepen, our reliance on fossil fuel extraction. Not surprisingly, the Trump administration is supporting those efforts, meeting privately with oil giants at the White House and using the coronavirus crisis as cover to roll back environmental enforcement policies designed to protect public health.
Staying perfectly on brand, Trump has already gutted fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks during the pandemic. Once again, when it comes to protecting our environment, Governor Wolf and Pennsylvania must show leadership where the Trump administration consistently fails. Thankfully, the Wolf administration and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have already laid out a good roadmap.
Before the pandemic hit, Gov. Tom Wolf directed DEP to establish a program to cut carbon pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants.
As a result, DEP has been drafting rules to reduce harmful pollution while generating revenue for the commonwealth and allowing Pennsylvania plants to participate in a regional marketplace of ten states known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).
This would create incentives for electric power plants in Pennsylvania to reduce their carbon footprint through innovative new approaches and shared best practices. Pennsylvania is on a path to join RGGI by 2022, and the RGGI states have re-invested over $3.4 billion in auction proceeds generated by the program to advance clean energy programs and cut ratepayer bills.
Despite the all-consuming nature of coronavirus, the current outbreak is unfortunately not the only crisis facing our society today. It’s just the latest.
Climate change remains a very real, very imminent threat. We cannot let our response to one crisis destroy our efforts to stop another by locking in more carbon pollution for decades.
There’s a pressing need for immediate relief – workers and small business owners in Pennsylvania and across the country deserve nothing less. But we must consider the future impact and potential in this historic effort to reactivate our economy. That means creating sustainable industries and prioritizing a healthy environment for future generations.
Joseph Otis Minott is the executive director and chief counsel for the Clean Air Council. He writes from Philadelphia.