Pa. Gov. Plans to Put Cap on Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Tom Johnson | October 4, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Gov. Tom Wolf wants Pennsylvania to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which New Jersey rejoined earlier this year
Credit: Foto-Rabe from Pixabay
Smog at sunrise

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf yesterday announced plans to have the state, the nation’s fourth largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, join a multistate initiative designed to curb pollution contributing to climate change.

The decision is significant because it marks the largest expansion since the inception of the decade-old Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which would now include all of the Mid-Atlantic states and the Northeast. New Jersey was an original member, rejoining earlier this year, and expects to participate in its next auction early next year, while Virginia plans to rejoin.

The cap-and-trade program is designed to reduce emissions from power plants, while at the same time generating hundreds of millions of dollars for states to invest in clean energy and other technologies. It works by placing a tax on carbon emissions, eventually passed on to utility customers. Since 2005, it has reduced carbon pollution by about 45%, advocates say.

“This is a game changer, for a top energy producer like Pennsylvania to take this big step toward a cleaner future,’’ said Kate Konschnik, director of the Climate and Energy program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Pennsylvania ranks third in electricity production, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Pennsylvania could change energy landscape

Pennsylvania, as such a large producer of energy, is an important factor in how the nation’s largest electric grid, the PJM Interconnection, operates. In the deregulated energy marketplace, power plants are called on to supply electricity to the grid based on the lowest cost. If cheaper and more polluting power plants in states like Pennsylvania are chosen to operate, it could crowd out and idle more efficient and cleaner generating stations elsewhere.

The issue has been dubbed “leakage,’’ and has been used as an argument for why some have said RGGI is ineffective. If Pennsylvania joins the initiative and sets a cap on new carbon emissions, it would essentially largely reduce those arguments, advocates say.

“If Pennsylvania is in, the whole landscape changes,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “It strengthens and makes a stronger argument for a national program.’’

With the federal government pulling away from tough national policies, Pennsylvania’s move aligns with stronger steps by state governments to deal with a climate crisis that scientists say is worsening faster than anticipated.

“As one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the country, Pennsylvania’s action will have a real impact on the fight against climate change,’’ said Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “By seeking to link to the existing, efficient greenhouse gas program already working well in their neighboring states, they appear to be poised to do it in the most effective way available.”

Legal challenges expected to follow

Still, it is no sure thing in a state so reliant on energy production that Pennsylvania will join RGGI. Wolf, in an executive order, directed the state Department of Environmental Protection to join the initiative, but it could be subject to multiple litigation.

In a press release, Wolf said, “Given the urgency of the climate crisis facing Pennsylvania and the entire planet, the commonwealth must continue their concrete, economically sound and immediate steps to reduce emissions. Joining RGGI will give us the opportunity to protect the health and safety of our citizens.’’

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe congratulated Pennsylvania officials for the decision in a tweet. “#GHGs do not stop at state lines and we all face the threat of climate change together.’’

In Pennsylvania, conservationists also applauded the action. “For centuries, Pennsylvania has been among the worst carbon polluters, but today, Governor Wolf took a vital stand toward a better future,’’ said Josh McNeil, executive director of the Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania.