Tax carbon? You’re gonna need a bill for that.
It’s a message that Republicans — and some Democrats — have hammered home ever since Gov. Tom Wolf announced in early October he was forging ahead with a plan to enter the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
RGGI, as it’s known in official shorthand, is a nine state cap-and-trade program in the northeast that auctions off carbon credits to power companies to limit carbon emissions.
Revenue can then be used on a number of programs, such as heating assistance for low-income families, energy efficiency, or other green projects.
The program could likely not be implemented for nearly two years, due to the slow pace of regulatory rulemaking. That would put it near to the end of Wolf’s second, and final term, which expires in 2022.
But that hasn’t stopped a trio lawmakers from western Pennsylvania — two Republicans and one Democrat — from rolling out a bill to prevent Wolf, or any future governor, from regulating carbon without legislative approval.
On Tuesday, those legislators justified their action by pointing to the nearly 23 percent decline in the Keystone state’s carbon emissions, as well as the abundance of fossil fuel fired jobs to negate Wolf’s call.
The RGGI program, they added, amounts to a carbon tax. And that means the final say over its enactment lies with the Legislature.
Despite some hearings that included noted national climate change skeptics, advocates for the bill also declared that they were only opposed to Wolf’s use of executive fiat, not the idea of global warming.
“We are not here today to discuss climate change,” Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said during a Capitol news conference. “In fact, we are here to discuss the manner in which the governor made his decision.”
Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, also argued that Pennsylvania shouldn’t be asked to do more on climate if other entities might continue on without taking action.
“We ship coal overseas for other countries to burn and emit carbon,” Pittman, a first-year lawmaker, said. “Last time I checked we don’t have a bubble over our state.”
Wolf has expressed his hope to work with the GOP-controlled General Assembly on how to implement RGGI and spend dollars earned from auctioning carbon credits. But he has insisted he doesn’t need the Legislature’s approval to enter into the regional cap-and-trade program.
The administration says it has the authority under a 1960’s-era air pollution law. That, combined with the federal classification of carbon as an air pollutant, let’s the administration enact enact cap and trade without any new laws, they claim.
States with Republican governors — Maryland and Massachusetts — have implemented RGGI, but no state has done so without legislative approval.
Wolf pitched RGGI as a way to for Pennsylvania to make further cuts into the state’s heavy carbon footprint — approximately 287 million metric tons of carbon in 2015, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Those emissions are equal to roughly 1 percent of the global output, and near the top among the states, according to federal data.
While carbon output has been on the downturn as gas replaces coal, a 2018 report from the DEP projected that carbon emissions could increase without any further action.
Numerous federal and international agencies, backed by legions of scientists, have predicted that climate change is estimated to cause hundreds of billions of dollars in economic damage and endanger millions over the next century if not limited.
Environmental advocates, among them Harrisburg-based PennFuture, have come out the proposal to block RGGI.
In a statement, Rob Altenburg, the director of the PennFuture’s Energy Center, said that the DEP has already used similar market-based programs to put a price on and sell emission allowances for other air pollutants. Addressing carbon via cap and trade would be no different.
“The Legislature attempting to delay the process serves no purpose but to increase pollution,” Altenburg said.
Because the proposal to prevent RGGI is a bill, Wolf would have the choice to sign it, veto it, or allow it to lapse into law without his signature.
“As he said, Governor Wolf wants to work with the legislature to implement RGGI, which would reduce air pollution and combat climate change,” administration spokesman J.J. Abbott said. “However, he opposes any effort to weaken the administration’s authority to ensure clean air for Pennsylvanians.”
Besting a gubernatorial veto would require a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, which means majority Republicans would have to muster Democratic votes.
What could complicate the picture is the stance of the state building trades, some of whose jobs are linked to the fossil fuel economy.
For example, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers represents thousands of power plant workers in Pennsylvania’s remaining coal fired power plants.
Other trades fix or build infrastructure linked to natural gas, coal and other extractive industries.
Shawn Steffee, a business agent with Boilermakers Local 154, said that as a union Democrat, he wanted Wolf to show how RGGI could provide economic prosperity to parts of the state from bustling cities and leafy suburbs.
“I ask the Governor to show me the thousands of blue collar jobs and industry that will replace [fossil fuels] and support our communities in rural Pennsylvania right now,” Steffee said.
Building trades leaders have privately expressed concern with the potential job consequences of RGGI.
Speaking to the Capital-Star last month, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said that ideally, the General Assembly would in the long term “put some parameters or guard rails in place” on spending money earned from a cap-and-trade program.
Cutler added that while Wolf had the ability to enter talks about RGGI, he did not have the ability to unilaterally enter an agreement. While Pittman said a “plan B” would only be discussed if needed, Cutler was willing to offer up another option — legal action.
“When it comes to separation of powers issues, we have to have any of those resources at our disposal,” Cutler said.