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Pennsylvania holds its first ‘listening session’ on Clean Power Plan

Friends and foes of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants welcomed or deplored the proposal, and sparred over how or whether Pennsylvania should implement it, at the state’s first “listening session” on the program on Tuesday.

Twenty-seven speakers representing interests ranging from job creation to clean air, building standards and environmental justice gave a succession of five-minute speeches urging officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection to take their causes into account in its compliance plan – and in a few cases, called for its rejection.

The three-hour event was the first in a series of 14 across the state at which interest groups and private citizens will be given the opportunity to put their views on how Pennsylvania should meet tough new goals on reducing carbon emissions.

Most speakers backed the federal plan, and urged the DEP to comply by increasing the use of renewable fuels and boosting energy efficiency. Several supporters said the state should not include natural gas in its compliance plan because of concerns over its leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

DEP Secretary John Quigley, who chaired the session at a DEP office building in Harrisburg, called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 “ambitious, but achievable.”

He said the compliance plan, which Pennsylvania is due to submit to the federal government by September 2016, will seek to safeguard the interests of a wide constituency that includes the energy industry and low-income communities that may be especially affected by the energy industry.

Quigley noted that Pennsylvania exports more electric power than any other state; is the second-largest generator of electricity, and has become the nation’s second-biggest producer of natural gas since the shale gas boom began a decade ago.

He pledged that the industry’s interests would be an important part of the compliance plan.

“They are going to play a role in our thinking as we develop the Clean Power Plan,” he said.

Quigley also pledged to incorporate the concerns of “environmental justice communities” – those where 20 percent or more of the people are living in poverty or 30 percent are minorities. Ten of the 14 listening sessions will be held in or near such communities, he said.

Dwayne Jackson, Sr., president of the Pennsylvania state conference of NAACP branches, said 71 percent of the state’s African-American population live in areas that do not meet federal air-quality standards.

Jackson accused the power industry of spreading “disinformation” about negative effects of the CPP, and he urged DEP officials to take disadvantaged communities into account in the compliance plan.

But Abby Foster, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, representing some 300 mine operators, argued that the rule would increase costs, cut jobs, and increase the power of the federal government over the state’s industry.

“Congress never granted authority to the EPA to determine how this country produces or consumes electricity and the Federal Power Act is clear that states have the primacy in determining an energy market that meets their unique needs,” she told the audience of about 60 people.

She urged Gov. Tom Wolf to consider the costs to business of complying with the rule before attempting to meet what she called a self-imposed deadline.

Carl Marrara, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, called the CPP an “unconstitutional federal power grab” that would hurt the state’s competitiveness in return for minimal environmental benefits.

He said the rule, published on Aug. 3, may not survive judicial review, and accused Pennsylvania officials of recklessness in implementing it before it is finalized.

And Thomas Chiomento, director of state government affairs for Exelon, owner of Three Mile Island and other nuclear plants, said that any transition to low-emissions electricity generation could only be achieved with by developing nuclear power. Pennsylvania’s five nuclear power plants generate 34 percent of the state’s electricity, avoiding the emissions of almost 35 million tons of carbon if that power had been generated with fossil fuels, he said.

Justina Wasicek, a resident of central Pennsylvania, said the plan offers Pennsylvania a chance to add jobs and improve air quality while combating climate change and helping the environmental justice communities. She argued that increased use of non-fossil fuels is the best way of achieving the EPA’s goals.

“I believe that focusing on increasing the use of renewable energy sources is our best and healthiest option,” she said.

Joy Bergey of the nonprofit Partnership for Policy Integrity urged the DEP to pursue renewables and energy efficiency to achieve CPP compliance rather than promoting natural gas or biomass and waste burning.

She argued that the CPP does not fully take into account methane leakage from gas wells, and uses an outdated assessment of the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas, saying it is 25 more powerful than carbon dioxide over 100 years rather than using the latest estimate from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that methane is 86 times more powerful than CO2 over 20 years.

The DEP is seeking public input on questions including how to measure compliance; whether the state should join an emissions-trading program; how the state can best use energy efficiency and renewables in meeting the goals; how can it meet its objective of prioritizing its own resources, and how environmental justice communities might be affected by the plan.

The DEP is accepting public comments, at future listening session and in written submissions via its website, until Nov. 12.

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