Environmental advisory committees give OK to proposed RGGI rule

  • Rachel McDevitt

Three advisory committees to the Department of Environmental Protection are offering their support of the proposed rule to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Last week’s votes mark a shift in attitude from last year, when none of the committees voted to recommend the draft rule.

The advisory boards’ votes are non-binding. While they didn’t recommend the rule last year, they didn’t reject it, either.

Still, lawmakers who oppose joining RGGI pointed to the votes as one reason to stop the process. Republican senators most recently brought it up in a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, in which they promised to reject his nominations to the Public Utility Commission unless he backed off RGGI. The caucus did not respond to a request for comment on the recent votes.

DEP revised the rule to include protections for waste coal plants and combined heat and power generators. It also added a set of equity principles to protect disadvantaged communities as well as a commitment to annually assess air quality.

The rule now has the support of the Citizens Advisory Council, the Small Business Compliance Advisory Committee, and the Air Quality Technical Advisory Committee.

A fourth committee, the Environmental Justice Advisory Board, previously supported RGGI but pushed for more attention to go to communities with outsized pollution burdens. It also voted last week to advance the rule.

“I think we’re trying to do something, I honestly believe for the greater good. But it is not easy. I don’t know that it ever is easy,” said Patrick O’Neill, chair of the air quality committee.

Rebecca Oyler, who represents the trucking industry on the small business committee, voted against the rule.

“When we discussed this in the fall, part of the reason we voted not to move the regulation forward was because the economic impact analysis — the indirect impacts on small businesses was not complete. And it seems to me that that economic impact analysis is still incomplete,” Oyler said.

DEP said it will have the results of outreach efforts to affected communities this summer, as well as responses to critical comments made during the public comment period.

It plans to present the rule to the Environmental Quality Board for a final vote later this year and, if approved, join the program in early 2022.

RGGI, a partnership of 11 northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, is a program that requires power plants to pay for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit. The goal is to cut greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

DEP expects to raise $300 million in the first year. It estimates joining the program will save billions in health care costs over the next decade by cutting pollution.

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed setting up a trust fund with 50 percent of RGGI proceeds that would go to ease the transition in communities that are home to coal-fired power plants and to help environmental justice communities.

According to the DEP, environmental justice areas are places where 20 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line or 30 percent identify as non-white minorities. They have historically shouldered a disproportionate pollution burden.

DEP policy director Jessica Shirley said there would be dedicated funds for environmental justice communities under each part of the governor’s plan.

Wolf is also calling for 25 percent of RGGI revenue to go to clean energy and energy efficiency programs and 19 percent to abate greenhouse gas emissions from the commercial and industrial sector. One third of each of those funds would be directed to environmental justice areas.

Overall, Shirley said that means at least 40 percent of RGGI revenue would be spent in environmental justice communities.

Enacting the plan requires approval from the legislature, which so far has only advanced bills to stop the RGGI process.

Without new laws, RGGI proceeds will go to the Clean Air Fund, which can only be used to improve air quality. Shirley said, if that’s the case, DEP will try to draft its investment plan as close to the governor’s framework as it can.

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