Pa.’s building trade unions need to be allies, not opponents, of a cleaner climate | Opinion

August 18, 2020 6:30 am

Keystone Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Armstrong County, about 50 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. (Capital-Star photo)

By Greg Vitali

Recently, a number of powerful Pennsylvania building trades union leaders lobbied for the passage of two bills that would hurt Pennsylvania’s efforts to reach its greenhouse gas reduction goals. Some Democrats cast votes for both bills. Democratic legislators must resist pressure from union leaders to protect and expand fossil fuel jobs. Instead they should help create good green jobs.

In early July, the Pennsylvania state House passed legislation (HB2025) sponsored by Rep. James B. Struzzi, R-Indiana, which would effectively block Pennsylvania’s entrance into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI is a 10-state cap-and-trade program designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power sector.

Pennsylvania emits almost 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas and about 30 percent of these emissions come from its electric power sector, mainly coal- and gas-fired power plants. RGGI is the most important climate change initiative of the Wolf administration.

In the days prior to the vote on the Struzzi bill, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Pa. State Building and Construction Trades Council, and other local building trade unions lobbied in support of the bill. The AFL-CIO in a letter to State House members specifically cited the loss of jobs in the coal industry as a reason for their support of the bill and their opposition to RGGI.

Union support, combined with the expected support of the fossil fuel industry, resulted in the bill passing easily with 26 Democratic House members voting yes. The bill is now in the Senate where its fate is uncertain.

A week later, the Pennsylvania House and Senate both considered a bill (HB732) sponsored by Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, providing tax credits totaling up to $663 million over the next 30 years to new Pennsylvania companies that purchase and use natural gas in the manufacture of petrochemicals and commercial fertilizer derived from petrochemicals.

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These companies emit large quantiles of greenhouse gas. They burn natural gas as a fuel source releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. They also they leak methane, another powerful greenhouse gas.

Laborers International Union of North America and Pa. State Building and Construction Trades Council lobbied for the Kaufer bil, citing the creation of prevailing wage jobs to construct these plants. The bill passed both chambers easily with significant Democratic support. Gov. Tom Wolf recently signed the bill into law.

In January of 2019, Wolf signed an executive order establishing a statewide goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 calling climate change, “…the most critical environmental threat facing the world.”

We cannot reach this greenhouse gas reduction goal by enacting legislation like  such as HB2025 and HB732.

To the contrary, we must join RGGI and do other things like increasing the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, expanding the energy conservation provisions of Act 129 and electrifying our transportation sector. This will create good green jobs.

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The influence of building trade unions on Democratic legislators was key in the passage of both HB2025 and HB732. Unions are traditional allies of the Democratic party. They are a difficult force to resist.

It is understandable that unions view legislation through the narrow lens of their own jobs. This will not change anytime soon. But Democratic legislators must resist this union pressure and vote with a broader societal focus.

State Rep. Greg Vitali, of Delaware County, is the ranking Democratic member of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. He writes from Harrisburg. Readers may email him at [email protected].

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