By Joseph O. Minott
Pennsylvania stands at a historic crossroads. When state lawmakers return to session in mid-March, they’ll face several critical environmental policy decisions.
There’s a bill to bail out the nuclear industry, a proposed rule to reduce air pollution from existing oil and gas facilities, and a petition to adopt an economy-wide cap-and-trade program on carbon emissions, among others.
Unfortunately, each issue is being discussed on its own in a vacuum. This is shortsighted. We must consider these as part of a larger conversation on carbon emissions and how we can safeguard the future of Pennsylvania.
A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes clear that we must take action immediately. Humanity has to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 — and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 — to avoid suffering the worst impacts of climate change
Pennsylvania has a key role to play. Its greenhouse gas emissions are globally significant. The Commonwealth would rank among the top 20 countries worldwide in carbon pollution. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions here would make a world of difference.
An economy-wide cap-and-trade program would allow Pennsylvania to take a market-based approach to climate change and carbon emission reductions.
This holistic solution would set a price on carbon with a declining cap on those emissions to achieve carbon neutrality by the middle of the century.
Last November, the Clean Air Council submitted a rulemaking petition with a draft regulation to implement just such a policy. This is the comprehensive solution Pennsylvania needs.
Meanwhile, lawmakers will soon debate how to save Pennsylvania’s sizable nuclear industry. Three Mile Island is scheduled to close this year, followed by the Beaver Valley plant in 2021.
Operators claim they can no longer compete in the marketplace — unless taxpayers rescue them. Pennsylvanians have legitimate concerns about safety and waste, but nuclear energy is carbon-free.
We cannot replace nuclear energy with coal and natural gas, significant greenhouse gas emitters. State policy on nuclear power must emphasize the goal of a methodical, deliberate transition away from nuclear and fossil fuels to a safer, cleaner, and more economical energy system.
The Council’s cap-and-trade program would accomplish this by pricing carbon at a level that would expand renewable energy use while preserving Pennsylvania’s nuclear plants in the short term.
Smart nuclear policy must be accompanied by reductions in fossil fuel air pollution. Pennsylvania is the second-largest natural gas producing state in the country.
Rising production continues to increase emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane has 87 times the warming impact of carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeline and leaks at every stage along the gas supply chain. Independent, peer-reviewed studies show that methane emissions are nearly five times higher than what Pennsylvania operators self-report to the state.
Last December, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection finally unveiled its draft regulation to control emissions from existing natural gas facilities. However, the draft rule is modeled after 2016 federal guidelines focused on different pollutants and does not directly target methane.
This falls short. DEP has the legal authority to target methane and must do so.
The draft rule also includes an exemption for “low-producing” wells that would leave out a majority of existing Pennsylvania wells. We must not leave any opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the table. A rule to reduce emissions from existing facilities must target methane and cover the facilities that actually exist.
Furthermore, in January, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order setting a goal for Pennsylvania to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. However, it’s unclear how he can fulfill this pledge while actively promoting the natural gas industry.
His Restore PA infrastructure plan would lock Pennsylvania into fossil fuel dollars for decades to come. The evidence continues to mount: we cannot drill our way out of this climate crisis.
Wolf is in luck. The Council’s cap-and-trade petition would achieve his pledged emission reduction goals.
The path forward is clear. Pennsylvania needs nuclear policy that emphasizes a transition to clean energy. It needs to target methane in reducing emissions from existing natural gas sites. It needs a cap-and-trade program as the holistic solution that reduces emissions for future generations.
We must tackle these issues together as part of a coordinated response to the emergency facing our society and our Commonwealth. We must take comprehensive action, and we must do it without delay.
Joseph O. Minott is the executive director and chief counsel for the Clean Air Council. He writes from Philadelphia.