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Top stories of 2021: The fight over RGGI

  • Rachel McDevitt
Students from Susquehanna Township and Cedar Cliff high schools demonstrate for action on climate change in front of the state capitol on Friday, December 6, 2019.

Rachel McDevitt / WITF

Students from Susquehanna Township and Cedar Cliff high schools demonstrate for action on climate change in front of the state capitol on Friday, December 6, 2019.

Pennsylvania moved closer this year to joining a regional program to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

That’s despite repeated attempts to stop it from Republicans who control the legislature.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative cleared regulatory hurdles this year and the administration hopes to enter in early 2022.

Under the program, power plants must pay for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit, making dirtier sources of energy less competitive. The state can use that money to fund clean energy and energy efficiency programs.

Wolf has made it the centerpiece of his climate plan.

But Republicans have been looking for ways to stop the proposal, which they claim amounts to an illegal tax.

In April, all 27 Republican members of the state Senate, plus one Independent, wrote to the governor saying they would block his nominations to the state’s utility regulator unless Wolf backs off RGGI.

Clean Air Council attorney Robert Routh called the letter a ransom note.

“Today it’s about RGGI. This sets an ugly precedent because tomorrow it could be about some other policy dispute,” Routh said.

Wolf eventually pulled his nominee.

In May, some lawmakers sent a letter to RGGI, Inc., the nonprofit that administers the program, asking it to bar the state from joining.

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles, who sits on the board of directors, said they don’t require legislative backing to admit a new state. They only make sure a state’s plan is in compliance with the RGGI framework.

“We do not micromanage the legal or policy or program decisions that a state will make,” Grumbles said.

The Department of Environmental Protection received more than 14,000 comments on the proposal and revised it to include some protections for waste coal plants and disadvantaged communities, among other changes.

The Environmental Quality Board approved it in July.

Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), who is on the board, was one of the few no votes. He said RGGI would cost the state jobs without making a meaningful dent in national emissions.

“I cannot see giving up Pennsylvania control over our own economy and our own environment,” Yaw said.

Pa. Republican lawmakers and the U.S. Capitol attack
As part of WITF’s commitment to standing with facts, and because the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was an attempt to overthrow representative democracy in America, we are marking elected officials’ connections to the insurrection. Read more about this commitment.
Sens. Corman and Yaw each supported Donald Trump’s 2020 election-fraud lie by signing a letter urging members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes going to Joe Biden. The election-fraud lie led to the attack on the Capitol.

Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the U.S. for carbon emissions; it has a long history of coal mining and produces more natural gas than any state except Texas.

In October, the Senate voted to disapprove the RGGI rule.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) said it would hinder development of industry related to Marcellus shale gas drilling.

“This decision to enter into RGGI is sending a terrible message across the country about Pennsylvania. A terrible message that you’re going to see lack of investment,” Corman said.

The state House passed the resolution on Dec. 15, though the Wolf Administration had argued the House had run out of time to vote.

Wolf has 10 days to veto the resolution once it gets to his desk.

A veto would send it back to the legislature, where each chamber has 30 calendar days or 10 legislative days–whichever is longer–to attempt to override the veto. The Wolf Administration can’t move forward with the regulation during that period.

If the legislature fails to come up with the two-thirds majority needed, the state can join RGGI.

Lawmakers could also pursue a legal challenge–further delaying enactment.

Bills have also been introduced in the House and Senate that would prevent the state from joining a program such as RGGI without legislative approval. Previous versions of those bills failed.

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