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Should Pa. join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to fight climate change? | Pro/Con

An environmental researcher debates a Pennsylvania state senator.

Wind turbines rise behind the Kimberly Run coal mine in Friedens, Somerset County. Joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative would cap the amount of carbon that coal and other power plants in Pennsylvania can emit.
Wind turbines rise behind the Kimberly Run coal mine in Friedens, Somerset County. Joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative would cap the amount of carbon that coal and other power plants in Pennsylvania can emit.Read moreLAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania’s elected officials are locked in a stalemate over an initiative meant to fight climate change: the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Signed onto by 11 states in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, the program limits the amount of carbon pollution that power plants in the region can emit, and auctions off “pollution permits” accordingly. After Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order last October for Pennsylvania to join, the state House of Representatives pushed back in July by passing a bill — approved by the Senate on Sept. 9* — requiring the governor to get the legislature’s sign-off before imposing any kind of carbon tax. The state’s Environmental Quality Board will weigh in on Sept. 15 by voting on a rule that would green light Pennsylvania’s participation in RGGI.

Ahead of that vote, The Inquirer turned to a researcher for PennEnvironment and the chairman of the Pennsylvania Senate’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee to debate: Should our state join RGGI?

Yes: This emissions cap is a proven way for Pennsylvania to become a clean energy leader.

By Kelly Flanigan

Climate change is the most profound environmental threat facing our planet today. The actions we take over the next few years will impact not just Pennsylvanians, but people all around the world, for generations to come.

We’ve known for years that we must drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Ultimately, we need to get to net-zero emissions worldwide by no later than 2050.

As the fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the nation, Pennsylvania has a responsibility to be a leader in implementing climate solutions and reducing emissions.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a key step toward that goal. Over the past 12 years, RGGI has proven to be the most successful state-level program in the nation for addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

The data is indisputable: from 2008 through 2018, carbon pollution has decreased by 47% in participating RGGI states, outpacing the rest of the country by 90%. When Pennsylvania joins RGGI, it’s projected to further reduce carbon emissions statewide by a massive 188 million tons by 2030, in addition to curbing other harmful pollutants.

Opponents argue that joining RGGI will put an end to coal-related jobs. But the reality is that coal jobs are already on the way out in Pennsylvania, with or without RGGI. Coal has proven too expensive to reliably generate energy, leading to coal plants quickly being phased out here and across the nation.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania joins Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, taking landmark — and controversial — climate step

Sadly, polluters and their political allies love to fall back on the age-old “jobs vs. the environment” trope, arguing that if Pennsylvania participated in RGGI, it would create an economic disaster. We’ve seen these arguments for decades, as polluters made the same claims when we passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and essentially every other environmental protection that they did not want to comply with. Yet, none of those laws spelled economic doom.

As for RGGI, studies by independent sources show the opposite: the initiative is projected to create 27,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania and put nearly $2 billion into the state’s economy over the next decade alone. With investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and greenhouse gas abatement, most jobs would be created in renewable energy and energy efficiency, but also through electricity bill savings. Modeling suggests that, across the board, if companies are saving money on energy costs, they can hire additional workers.

Studies have also shown that the cost of implementing RGGI is negligible and, if done correctly, will actually save consumers money. Electricity prices have in fact fallen by 5.7% in RGGI states, while prices have increased in the rest of the country by 8.6%.

“Lower air pollution in RGGI states has led to significantly fewer premature deaths, heart attacks, and respiratory illnesses.”

Kelly Flanigan

The benefits of joining RGGI extend far beyond the economy and the climate. Reducing emissions from dirty power plants also has tremendous health benefits. Lower air pollution in RGGI states has led to significantly fewer premature deaths, heart attacks, and respiratory illnesses. At a time when public health is a top priority for most Pennsylvanians, steps toward better air quality should be a top priority for our elected officials.

It’s time for our politicians to stop dragging their feet and make Pennsylvania a clean energy leader. By requiring companies to pay for how much they pollute, we can drive down climate and air pollution, inject much-needed money into our state’s economy and create thousands of good jobs right here in Pennsylvania.

Above all else, we need to create a safe, liveable climate for generations to come. RGGI is the first step for Pennsylvania.

Kelly Flanigan is the global warming solutions associate for PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental advocacy nonprofit.

No: RGGI is a lose-lose proposition.

By Gene Yaw

Gov. Tom Wolf continues to double down on his scheme to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which, if not prevented by the General Assembly or the courts, will lead to higher electricity rates for every homeowner, renter, and business in southeastern Pennsylvania. Just as important, RGGI will lead to a discriminatory and job-killing tax on all coal- and gas-fired electric generation plants in the state.

Let’s look at the bigger picture – this is merely an attempt by the Wolf administration to eliminate fossil fuels altogether. I have news for the governor: Fossil fuels are needed to produce every windmill and solar panel to enhance our “clean energy” portfolio. Windmills and solar panels do not just drop out of the sky. They involve several manufacturing processes and materials that utilize fossil fuels, such as mining and steel and plastic production. I ask the governor to name one, just one, “clean energy” overture that does not rely on fossil fuel for all or part of its production.

The RGGI does not look at the whole picture and ignores the multitude of ramifications it generates and encourages while focusing on the very limited point of emissions at the end of all manufacturing processes. Ignored are questions and considerations regarding the increase in mining activity in the U.S. to provide the raw materials needed to produce “clean energy,” and the effect of increased mining in developing countries to support our “clean energy” goals. Are we going to accept being dependent on foreign governments, and are we going to exploit child labor for our “clean energy” materials, like the cobalt mining going on today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

“We are in great conflict with RGGI states like New York and New Jersey, which have banned new pipelines.”

Gene Yaw

The RGGI proposal has already been rejected by three DEP citizen advisory panels: the Air Quality Technical Advisory Committee, the Citizens Advisory Council, and the Small Business Compliance Advisory Committee. These committees are not just a “rubber stamp” for the administration. They have all expressed valid concerns surrounding RGGI implementation.

The Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, which I chair, continues to review and receive feedback about the immediate and irreparable harm triggered by the RGGI carbon tax. Further, we continue to examine ICF International, the Fairfax, Va.-based global consulting and technology services company employed by DEP to study Pennsylvania’s potential participation in RGGI. Our examination includes their clear conflict of interest first reported on July 9, in which ICF signed on to a letter circulated to members of the state’s Environmental Quality Board from businesses that support DEP’s proposed RGGI regulations.

» READ MORE: Northeast governors slow to embrace regional climate pact

In his 2020 budget address, the governor promised RGGI would “raise hundreds of millions of dollars … to make our air cleaner.” This statement is terribly misleading and fails to account for the enormous risks to Pennsylvania’s economy, communities, and ratepayers in the event of the proposed carbon tax.

We are in great conflict with RGGI states like New York and New Jersey, which have banned new pipelines that would allow our abundant, low-cost Marcellus Shale gas to flow to large markets like New York City and Boston, whose ratepayers currently have to rely on foreign imports to supply their gas needs.

The above questions, and many more, suggest the enormous policy implications of an RGGI carbon tax — exactly the sort of balance of actual risks and perceived benefits that the people of Pennsylvania elected the General Assembly to perform, not the executive branch.

State Sen. Gene Yaw is chairman of the state Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

*Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect the state Senate’s Sept. 9 vote.

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