Comment Period Opens for Controversial Pennsylvania Carbon-Cutting Plan

By Katie Herrmann

The comment period for Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Program opened on November 7.  

Development of the proposal for the program began last year when Governor Wolf issued an executive order instructing the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to join the interstate Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a market-based collaboration among ten Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and combat climate change while generating economic growth.

Under the DEP’s new program, power plants must acquire carbon dioxide allowances equal to the amount of CO2 the plants emit. The system would be structured so that each of the qualifying states in the RGGI could purchase and trade emission allowances in hopes of reducing emissions in a cost-effective way.

The proposal estimates that Pennsylvania will reduce climate pollution from carbon emissions by 188 million tons by 2030, helping Pennsylvania meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals of 26 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. It is expected that emission of other harmful pollutants like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter emissions will also drop significantly due to participation in the RGGI. The proposal mentions that chronic exposure to air pollutants like these have been related to higher rates of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19.

It further projects that power plant owners will pay $2.3 billion between 2022 and 2030 for emissions allowances and the funds will be invested in state programs meant to reduce air pollution. DEP’s modeling estimates that from 2022 to 2030, participating in RGGI would lead to an increase in Gross State Product of nearly $2 billion and a net increase of over 27,000 jobs in Pennsylvania. 

The plan has been met with intense resistance because the cost of carbon allowances based on the RGGI framework is expected to hasten the closure of Pennsylvania’s remaining coal plants. The Republican-led General Assembly passed a bill attempting to block environmental regulators from taking any action to limit carbon dioxide emissions without legislative approval. The bill, which was backed by blue-collar labor unions, the coal industry, and heavy manufacturers was subsequently vetoed by the Governor. Opponents suggest that the Governor is not acting within his constitutional power to unilaterally enter into an agreement such as this that essentially amounts to a carbon tax. Many staunchly oppose the proposal, suggesting that Pennsylvania’s participation in the RGGI will lead to Pennsylvania’s coal-fired power plants and older gas plants losing their ability to complete with bordering states such as West Virginia and Ohio which will not join RGGI and avoid being faced with a carbon tax.

However, the proposal states that the negative impact on the coal industry “occurs irrespective of the Commonwealth’s participation in RGGI,” and is driven strictly by current market forces.  The proposal suggests that the program will ensure a smooth transition from coal because it functions as a cap and invest program, which allows proceeds from the sale of Pennsylvania CO2 allowances to return to Pennsylvania for investment.

Comments can be submitted here through January 14, 2021 and ten virtual public hearing comment sessions are scheduled for five days in December.

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