In bipartisan vote, House blocks Wolf from entering regional climate initiative; Senate vote awaits

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

A bill to block Pennsylvania from entering an interstate program aimed at reducing climate change-inducing power plant emissions passed the Pennsylvania House Wednesday.

The proposal would require Gov. Tom Wolf or any future governor to seek legislative approval to tax carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas and byproduct of industrial activity that drives higher world temperatures.

The bill passed 130-71, with Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the tally, but it fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority to overcome Wolf’s veto. 

A spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that he would do just that. The bill still needs the approval of the state Senate before it can land on Wolf’s desk

Republicans portrayed the vote, coming in the middle of a broader battle over executive authority during the COVID-19 pandemic, as another example of legislators standing up to Wolf.

“We were elected to represent the people and if you’re not gonna listen to us, then you’re not listening to the people of Pennsylvania,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, said.

Between cars, power plants and industrial activity, Pennsylvania releases 264 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. 

Federal data pegs the Keystone State as the fourth biggest carbon emitter in the United States. To reduce these numbers and fight climate change, Wolf, a Democrat, announced that he would unilaterally enter Pennsylvania into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative last fall. 

Wolf begins process to bring Pennsylvania into regional cap-and-trade program

The initiative, created in 2009, places a price on each ton of carbon released during electricity generation. 

RGGI — pronounced Reggie — currently includes ten northeastern states, with governors from both parties. But with its coal mines and fracking boom, Pennsylvania’s entrance to the compact would break new ground.

Supporters say the program will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by forcing companies to pay up.

“We’re in a moment right now where we need leadership on climate,” said Mandy Warner, director of Clean Air and Policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “What this bill is is obstructionism and delay.”

But detractors cast the program as ineffective, only leading to plant closures and layoffs of union labor.

“Abating, controlling or limiting carbon dioxide emissions in Pennsylvania will have a significant negative economic impact on this commonwealth’s industrial, manufacturing and transportation sectors,” the bill states.

The world is getting warmer. What can Pennsylvania do about it?

If Pennsylvania entered the compact, the move would would impact 73 separate facilities across the state, mostly coal- and gas-fired power plants.

Some plants owners have threatened to shut down if the program is enacted. Those companies, as well as coal producers and the trade unions that work in and service the impacted plants, have put their muscle behind blocking RGGI.

Struzzi’s own district includes two such plants — both coal-fired power stations, among the last in the state. Another coal plant sits just outside his district in neighboring Armstrong County.

Struzzi told the Capital-Star that entering RGGI would be a “punishment on a particular industry,” and taking the money from the carbon tax and using “it to benefit other energy sectors, which I think is [an] unfair advantage.”

Opponents of cap-and-trade contemplate legislative, legal options to stop RGGI

Studies are split on RGGI’s efficacy. 

A 2015 Duke University study concluded that RGGI had reduced carbon emissions on its own by 24 percent. A 2019 congressional research review found the impact on emissions was negligible, but concluded the initiative would push for action.

In its own policy analysis released Wednesday, the Department of Environmental Protection concluded that the program would create 27,000 jobs from new renewable investments and save hundreds of lives by reducing air pollutants associated with electricity generation.

The concerns over executive power are not unfounded. Every other state to enter RGGI has done so with legislative approval. But Wolf cited a 60’s-era air pollution law to claim the authority to enter into the compact himself.

As of July, the regulation is in the early stages of legislative review. It likely would not become law until 2022.

The DEP projects RGGI would raise $300 million a year for the first four years, before revenues begin to decline. 

Those revenues could be spent on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and job retraining without any legislative input, the DEP claims. 

But, the Wolf administration has also tried to prod the General Assembly into negotiating carbon, conversations that have seemingly gone nowhere.

In recent years, the GOP-controlled General Assembly has taken few moves to address climate change. Bills to expand the state’s renewable energy portfolio or aid nuclear power have received no traction.

“We have been an irresponsible body more concerned with keeping our friends in this industry or that industry happy … then our children’s future,” said Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware and a vocal environmentalist, on the House Floor.