Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA Route 87, Lycoming County. (Source: Creative Commons).
When it comes to climate change, talk tends to focus on our shared responsibility to future generations. Everyone is encouraged to come together and do their part to reduce our collective impact on the planet. There’s no doubt climate change affects all of us, and we all have a role to play. But the reality is, some should have a larger role in our collective response than others. That’s true for Pennsylvania, where our longstanding relationship with the fossil fuel industry means our state creates more emissions and pollution than our neighbors.
Pennsylvania has been a leader of fossil fuel extraction since the mid-1850s.
Today, Pennsylvania is the nation’s second largest fracked gas producer and the third largest coal producer. We rank fourth in greenhouse emissions (CO2 equivalent). Our role as an energy-producing state has been central to our identity, history, and economy. However, Pennsylvanians now have a responsibility to address our role in contributing a disproportionate amount to climate change. Fortunately, some of our decision makers have tried to advance a proven approach to do just that through participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).
RGGI is a market-driven cap-and-invest program in which regulated power plants purchase “allowances” for the carbon emissions they produce. Each allowance provides a limited license to pollute – one short ton of carbon pollution for each allowance. Under RGGI, the supply of allowances declines predictably over time, and allowances are distributed at quarterly auctions. This incentivizes energy companies to cut their emissions to spend less on carbon credits while generating money to fund clean energy programs, energy efficiency, solar energy and other initiatives such as making our buildings much more energy efficient.
When then- Gov. Tom Wolf first signed the executive order to begin the process of joining RGGI in 2019, Pennsylvania was hailed as the first “fossil fuel state” to participate in the program. Other RGGI participants, including states like Maryland and New Jersey, produce a fraction of the fossil fuel energy that Pennsylvania does. Still, participating states are seeing results from RGGI. According to the group’s latest estimates, the program generated $374 million in proceeds in 2021. Over their lifetime, these 2021 investments are projected to provide households and businesses with $1.2 billion in energy bill savings and avoid the emission of 4.4 million short tons of carbon dioxide.
Pennsylvania’s participation would mark a key turning point for RGGI, both in terms of its meaningful impact in reducing emissions and finally addressing its role as a major producer of fossil fuels for over a century. Pennsylvania’s revenues from RGGI would be placed in the state’s Clean Air Fund to be used for a variety of initiatives tailored to the specific needs of Pennsylvania and its communities.
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s participation in RGGI has been halted by multiple lawsuits from coal and gas interests opposed to paying for their pollution. Today, the potential of RGGI is mired in litigation and proposed anti-RGGI legislation that fails to recognize RGGI’s proven results and the urgency of the climate crisis. In fact, far from demanding that the energy sector pay its fair share, Harrisburg continues to hand out subsidies to fossil fuel companies to the tune of billions of dollars every year.
To date, Pennsylvania has missed out on nearly $1 billion in RGGI proceeds. This is unacceptable. Rather than propping up fossil fuels, RGGI would generate money that would create jobs, improve public health, and reduce emissions across the state. Just as critically, it would amplify RGGI’s collective impact and solidify its role as a key piece in the larger approach to solving climate change nationwide.
That can only happen once conservative lawmakers acknowledge Pennsylvania’s important role in curbing climate change. Pennsylvania’s legacy as a fossil fuel state is complex. But throughout that history, we’ve always been an energy leader as well. From coal booms to nuclear energy to fracked gas, we’ve embraced the new realities of our energy industry to ensure Pennsylvanians can benefit.
RGGI gives Pennsylvania the framework and funding to be a leader yet again in the fast-growing green energy economy and the jobs that come with it.
It’s time that Pennsylvania begins participating in RGGI and making meaningful progress on climate change.
There is growing support for recognizing Pennsylvania’s opportunity – and obligation – to curb greenhouse gas emissions in a way that works for residents and industry alike.
Joseph Otis Minott is President of the Clean Air Action Fund. He writes from Philadelphia.
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