Top stories of 2020: The fight over RGGI

  • Rachel McDevitt

Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Homer City Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Western Pennsylvania.

This year Pennsylvania took steps to join a regional effort to curb carbon emissions from power plants — a key part of the governor’s plan to address climate change.

The Department of Environmental Protection released a draft plan to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in February.

The agency says joining the cap and trade program with ten northeastern states will prevent nearly ten times more carbon dioxide pollution over the next decade than if the state stuck to business as usual.

Under RGGI, power plants buy allowances for the carbon dioxide they emit. That makes dirtier sources of power less competitive selling electricity to the grid. They generate less, while cleaner sources ramp up, lowering harmful emissions. States can invest the money from the allowance auctions in things like clean energy.

Republicans and industry groups fought the effort, citing potential losses in fossil fuel-related jobs and accusing Wolf of executive overreach.

“Decisions to address climate change should not be done unilaterally by the governor,” said Representative Jim Struzzi (R-Indiana), who sponsored a bill to require legislative approval to join a cap-and-trade program such as RGGI.

Opponents said the program amounts to a tax, which only the general assembly has the power to enact.

Wolf vetoed the bill, and the process is moving forward. People can submit comments on the draft regulation until January 14.

Arguments around RGGI were, and remain, polarized. But economists agree the program appears to be working.

Nathan Chan, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, found states in RGGI are outperforming other states in terms of emissions reductions.

“They have a downward trend and that downward trend drops more sharply after RGGI’s implemented than it does anywhere else in the country,” he said.

Dallas Burtraw, an economist with the think tank Resources for the Future, said RGGI is a modest program, but it’s successful because of a mix of the price on emissions, strategic investments, and environmental regulations.

“You really need to play all three of these instruments in order to achieve that outcome,” Burtraw said.

Opponents to RGGI are right that it will hurt coal communities, according to Adele Morris, policy director of the Climate and Energy Economics Project at the Brookings Institution.

But, she said, market forces are already acting against coal. So, now is a good time to plan ahead.

“If you don’t take any action now to reduce emissions you’re going to be in worse condition when we do finally have a federal program,” she said.

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