HARRISBURG, Pa. — More than two years after starting work on it, Governor Tom Wolf is set to sign into law the centerpiece of his climate change plan, making Pennsylvania the first major fossil fuel state to adopt a carbon pricing policy – but that could be a short-lived victory.
A lawsuit already challenges Wolf’s regulations and more are expected. And the term-limited Democratic governor has eight months left in office and can be replaced by a hostile successor.
On Saturday, a legislative agency is set to publish Wolf’s rule on carbon pricing in the official record of state agency actions, allowing Pennsylvania to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state consortium that sets a decreasing price and limits on global warming. carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
It comes after a lengthy regulatory vetting process and battles with a hostile Republican-controlled legislature that historically protects Pennsylvania’s coal and natural gas industries.
Populous, fossil fuel-rich Pennsylvania has long been one of the nation’s biggest polluters and power producers, and the jury is out on whether the power plant carbon pricing program will significantly reduce emissions. of greenhouse gases.
Mark Szybist, senior counsel for the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said joining the consortium – dubbed RGGI – is the single most important step Pennsylvania has taken to fight climate change, and policymakers there should ask themselves what else they can do.
“RGGI will do more than any other policy in place in Pennsylvania right now to reduce emissions,” Szybist said.
Wolf’s administration estimates that joining the RGGI will reduce Pennsylvania’s carbon dioxide emissions from 97 million tons to 225 million tons through 2030. This compares to its estimate that Pennsylvania has emitted 269 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2018.
Under the cap and trade program, owners of fossil-fuel power plants with a capacity of 25 megawatts or more must buy a credit for each tonne of carbon dioxide they emit.
As a result, about four dozen coal, oil, and natural gas-fired power plants in Pennsylvania must purchase hundreds of millions of dollars in credits each year that the state could then spend on clean energy or energy programs. energetic efficiency.
This incentivizes fossil fuel power plants to reduce their emissions and makes non-emitting power plants – such as nuclear power plants, wind turbines and solar installations – more competitive in electricity markets.
Pennsylvania would be, by far, the largest issuing state in the consortium.
Wolf administration officials say the consortium’s quarterly auction in September is expected to be the first in which Pennsylvania power plant owners participate, and money could start flowing into state coffers soon. soon after.
Yet no one knows if Pennsylvania’s membership in the consortium will survive that long.
A lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s participation in the consortium is already before the courts. In that action, a court briefly banned publication of the settlement before lifting the order. And more trials are expected.
In this year’s gubernatorial campaign, energy is a constant theme for candidates vying for the Republican nomination to succeed Wolf.
“We have a governor who wants to put us on a regional greenhouse gas initiative that will literally eliminate the gas in Pennsylvania,” Republican candidate Lou Barletta said at a forum in Erie last month. “So the first thing I’m going to do for energy is take Pennsylvania out of RGGI.”
Barletta’s claim that it will phase out the gas is baseless: even some high-efficiency gas plant operators support the move.
Still, Barletta’s sentiment — that he would end Pennsylvania’s participation in the consortium — is echoed by other Republicans.
He is also opposed by coal and natural gas interests that fear higher input costs, industry and business groups that fear higher electricity bills, and unions that fear their workers will lose their jobs. in power plant maintenance, gas pipeline construction and coal mining.
Critics and even independent analysts say it will drive at least some of the business — and carbon dioxide emissions — at gas- and coal-fired power plants in neighboring Ohio and West Virginia, where costs inputs are lower and where there is no emissions cap.
Pennsylvania may not remain in the consortium even if Wolf’s successor is Democrat Josh Shapiro, the presumptive nominee of the party that is backed by Wolf.
Last October, Shapiro broke with Wolf, with his campaign telling The Associated Press that it’s unclear whether the cap-and-trade program meets Shapiro’s test to “fight climate change, protect and create jobs in the energy sector and ensure Pennsylvania has a reliable, affordable, and clean system. long term power. »
Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which opposes the settlement, said the big questions are how the state Supreme Court will rule — it has a Democratic majority – and what Shapiro will do, if elected.
“It’s hard to guess,” Barr said. “But no matter what happens this year, there are both legal and implementation challenges for RGGI.”
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/timelywriter.