In one-sided hearing, coal workers lay out dire stakes for cap-and-trade

Paul Cameron, business manager of IBEW 459, testifies Wednesday about the impact of a proposed cap-and-trade program on coal power plant workers in Pennsylvania. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

State House lawmakers heard from a dozen opponents — but no supporters — of  Pennsylvania’s entrance into a proposed carbon reduction program during an occasionally testy committee hearing Wednesday.

The proposal, known as Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, would implement a cap and trade program to limit carbon emissions from electricity generation in Pennsylvania. Nine states, all in the northeast already participate.

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

Gov. Tom Wolf announced he would enter the interstate compact in October as part of a commitment to cut into Pennsylvania’s carbon footprint. He immediately received pushback from Republicans and some Democrats who opposed his flexing of executive fiat and fearful for fossil fuel-linked jobs in their district

Those concerns were hammered home by a panel of union leaders and utility executives who testified before the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee Wednesday. 

They described RGGI as a “nuclear tipped cruise missile” aimed at the coal power industry, likely to ruin plants already struggling with natural gas driven low energy prices.

“Without RGGI in place, it is estimated that the remainder of coal fired plants retire in next 5 to 10 years, if not sooner,” Don Arena, president of the South-Central Building & Construction Trades Council, told the committee. “With RGGI in place these plants will close almost immediately after it is implemented. We need to let these plants retire [at] their own pace.”

Trade unions provide millions of man hours to both build new gas plants, as well as staff and maintain existing coal plants.

Trade unions join the fight against Wolf’s interstate initiative to limit carbon emissions

Arena acknowledged in his testimony that gas powered-plants don’t provide the same job opportunities. That’s because they require less maintenance and employ fewer workers. 

But he said he but feared that RGGI would drive away future investment so “at least the community will regain some of its tax revenue losses.”

According June 2019 data compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2,602 workers in Pennsylvania worked directly in fossil fuel electric power generation. They earned an average yearly salary of $128,232, the federal data showed.

Coal powers 13 percent of the electricity generated in Pennsylvania, according to federal data from last October.

Burning coal for electricity also releases 61 million metric tons of carbon, or about 23 percent of the state’s total emissions, according to Department of Environmental Resources data.

How effective RGGI would be at reducing Pennsylvania’s 256 million tons of greenhouses gas emissions is up for debate

A 2015 Duke University study gave the program some credit for reducing carbon in member states, but a nonpartisan Congressional study last year concluded that “from a practical standpoint, the RGGI program’s contribution to directly reducing the global accumulation of GHG emissions in the atmosphere is arguably negligible.” 

But lawmakers didn’t hear any debate Wednesday. No one testified in favor of the initiative, and Democrats noticed.

“This is a sham hearing, not a balanced hearing,” Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, said as she walked out early.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, defended the line up as including only industries directly impacted by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, instead of groups that “want to destroy the fossil fuel industry totally and want us all going back to horse and buggies.”

Some businesses have come out in favor of climate action, joining coalitions of nonprofits to encourage lawmakers that jobs and the environment aren’t mutually exclusive.

In November, a coalition of 18 businesses and higher education institutions sent a letter to the General Assembly calling for action on climate change.

The coalition includes food Mars Inc., which owns a chocolate factory in Elizabethtown, Pa., as well as American Eagle Outfitters, headquartered in Pittsburgh with a distribution center in Hazleton.

“Businesses are already feeling the effects of climate change — ranging from unpredictable growing seasons affecting the crops our products rely on, to the extreme weather events impacting our day-to-day operations, to increased heat waves and asthma attacks affecting the wellbeing of the workforce and the health of our employees,” the letter said.

Legislation to prevent Wolf from entering RGGI is pending in both chambers of the General Assembly, but has not yet been scheduled for a first vote out of committee.

If such legislation reached Wolf’s desk, it would face a certain veto. To prevent the program’s implementation, Republican lawmakers have also floated filing a lawsuit.

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