At DEP budget hearing, some legislators focus on Pa.’s effort to join RGGI

  • Rachel McDevitt

Pennsylvania’s possible entry into a regional cap and trade program does not affect the 2021-22 budget, but state House lawmakers had many questions about the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) during a budget hearing Monday with Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell.

Under RGGI, power plants pay for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit. States typically spend the proceeds on things like clean energy and energy efficiency programs.

Opponents to RGGI used the hearing to repeat their criticism: they argue participation amounts to a tax that the executive branch doesn’t have the power to enact, that it will kill jobs in coal communities, harm the broader economy, and raise electricity rates.

Some pointed to a recent letter from the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) that they believe supports their case.

IRRC determines whether a proposed rule is in the public interest, as defined by state law. Its letter summarized public comment for and against RGGI, asked for more information from DEP, and asked for a one year delay for joining the program to give businesses time to prepare.

McDonnell said they are reviewing the letter.

“They are comments from IRRC. It is not necessarily a ruling; it is asking us to respond to what our authorities are,” he said.

DEP must include its response when it submits the final draft of the RGGI rule, which is expected later this year.

McDonnell said DEP has the authority to join RGGI and regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under Pennsylvania’s Clean Air Act. He said he anticipates legal challenges to the regulation.

DEP modeling shows a net jobs gain under RGGI and stable electricity rates. McDonnell said investments in energy efficiency made with program proceeds would reduce demand for electricity and keep prices from rising.

Gov. Tom Wolf is proposing using some RGGI revenue to help coal communities transition and to support environmental justice areas. McDonnell said they are partnering with the Chicago-based nonprofit Delta Institute to identify the best ways to do that.

But, he said, climate adaptation measures and economic development programs will be hard to impossible to fund without action from the legislature.

If the General Assembly doesn’t act, RGGI would remain a regulation in Pennsylvania. That means revenues would stay in the Clean Air Fund, where they can only be used to reduce air pollution.

Wolf’s is requesting $164.8 million for DEP in his budget plan. That’s a slight increase from last year, though the administration said it is primarily a cost-to-carry, so that DEP can continue to conduct inspections, review permit applications, and otherwise fulfill its mission.

Some Republican lawmakers argued DEP does not carry out its mission well. Many complained of permit processing delays, a recurring issue brought up in annual budget hearings.

McDonnell said several times during the hearing that the agency is short-staffed; it has an 8.8 percent vacancy rate, partly due to restrictions on hiring during the pandemic.

DEP spokesman Jamar Thrasher said the average processing time for all permit applications that result in issuance is 75 days in recent years. He said DEP staff last year did more than 77,000 inspections and took action on more than 31,000 applications and authorizations with 94% of permit decision guarantee applications finished on time.

“We’d like to point out that investments into our information technology infrastructure have allowed DEP the flexibility to continue to process applications while teleworking through the pandemic,” Thrasher said.

A few Republican lawmakers disputed the DEP’s permit data.

Appropriations committee chairman Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York) scolded McDonnell for permit delays, saying many companies during the pandemic have realized efficiencies in remote work.

“Yet we in state government can’t seem to find a way to keep up to date on issuing permits,” Saylor said. “This is destroying jobs in Pennsylvania. It’s destroying our economy, because you can’t get your department to operate efficiently.”

Saylor did not give McDonnell a chance to respond.

Minority chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy committee Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware) said DEP has been chronically underfunded, losing hundreds of positions over the past two decades. He said the agency has lost 61 field positions just in the last year, and the proposed budget doesn’t address that.

“I’ve seen this legislature consistently and intentionally starve this program of resources and there are consequences,” Vitali said.

Saylor said he was tired of hearing excuses about a lack of funding. He said DEP still hasn’t spent $633,000 from its 2018 general operations budget, $1.1 million from its 2018 environmental program management fund, and $5 million from its 2019 budget.

DEP budget documents show similar figures listed under “budgetary reserves” for those funds. Thrasher said the money was slated for needed operational expenditures. But, due to contingency planning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the expenditures were put on hold.

Saylor also tried to draw a connection between Pennsylvania joining RGGI and the recent power failure in Texas. He repeated a debunked claim that Texas’ increased reliance on renewable energy caused the crisis during an unusual winter storm.

“What assurance can you give to the people of Pennsylvania that that won’t happen here, by your moving to shut down coal plants and other plants in this commonwealth and shifting totally to green — what assurance do you have that people aren’t going to die like they did in Texas?” Saylor said.

When McDonnell responded that the largest failures came from natural gas plants, Saylor cut him off, saying that wasn’t true.

Texas gets about 25 percent of its electricity from renewables. The Austin American-Statesmen reported wind shutdowns accounted for less than 13% of the outages, according to officials who oversee the grid. They added it appeared that a lot of the generation that went offline was primarily due to issues in the natural gas system.

The Lone Star State experienced across the board failures in all kinds of generation, because the grid wasn’t equipped to handle such cold weather. Its self-contained grid meant other states couldn’t send in power while Texas’ plants were offline.

This story has been updated with additional comments from DEP.

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