With eye on climate future, Pennsylvania makes allowances in cap-and-trade proposal for fossil fuel past

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

State environmental regulators have released the details of a cap-and-trade program that aims to cut into carbon emissions, even as it provides a carve-out for a politically popular industry with mixed environmental impacts.

The rules, posted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection last week, would give free carbon credits to power plants that burn coal waste, which covers thousands of acres with black soot while polluting streams. 

The proposals are part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and we’re discussed at a legislative hearing Monday. RGGI, as it is known, limits carbon emissions for power plants, and currently includes 10 states, all in the northeast. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf announced his intent to enter the program last fall.

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

As written, Pennsylvania’s rules would apply to a total of 58 facilities, including nine coal refuse plants concentrated in Pennsylvania’s northeast and southwest.

The proposed regulations give the coal refuse plants nearly eight million tons in carbon allowances for free. Other electricity producers, without the carveout, must purchase the emission credits at auction, with revenues going to the state.

Coal waste plants opened in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when Pennsylvania’s utilities were regulated, according to Jaret Gibbons, head of the Anthracite Region Independent Power Producers Association — an industry group.

Lately, deregulation and lower electricity prices have led to at least four plants to close in the last few years, Gibbons, a former Democratic state representative, added. 

Burning through the gritty gray leftovers of an industrial past releases carbon, contributing to climate change. Coal refuse equals 15 percent of the carbon emissions from coal-fired electricity generation in Pennsylvania.

Add in the other risks and environmentalists face a catch-22. The mounds, which take up 8,000 aces across the state, leach pollution into streams and can catch fire without warning. 

“To simply look at the carbon emissions without looking at the full benefits of the industry is a very narrow way to see it,” Gibbons told the Capital-Star.

The RGGI carve-out won’t be the only perk the industry receives. Coal refuse plants also get a state tax credit if they restore the land once covered by waste piles. The electricity the plants produce is also included in the state’s alternative energy portfolio law.

Rob Altenburg, head of environmental group PennFuture’s energy center, told the Capital-Star last week that he wouldn’t argue with the plants environmental upsides by cleaning up legacy pollution.

However, many of those upsides, Altenburg said, are relying on the industry’s own claims.

“We don’t see an attempt to see if the waste coal is actually addressing a pile leaching into a stream,” Altenburg told the Capital-Star. He added that there could be “more effective environmental responses” to the problem.

The coal refuse carveout isn’t the only nod to Pennsylvania’s history of extracting natural resources. The proposed rules also provide companies with free emissions credits for plugging abandoned oil and gas wells.

The DEP estimates that there are more than 200,000 abandoned and open wells all across the state, a legacy of the state’s industrial history. One 2016 study predicted that the true total could be triple that estimate.

Unplugged wells can lead to water and ground pollution, as well as leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. 

According to the study, Pennsylvania’s abandoned wells may leak between 1 million to 1.75 million tons of carbon — between a half and three-quarters of a percent of Pennsylvania’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.