Cap-and-trade emissions: An unrecognized consensus in Pennsylvania?

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Three Mile Island, as seen from Sunset Golf Course, in Middletown, Friday, March 8, 2019. (Photo by: Lindsay C. VanAsdalan)

There's an emerging consensus in the state Legislature about how Pennsylvania could diversify its zero-carbon emissions portfolio, but neither side of the aisle seems to realize it.

Green groups are pushing for the state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a group of nine Northeastern states — soon to be 11 — that are taking a cap-and-trade approach to lowering their carbon footprint and bolstering other resources.

Gov. Tom Wolf  earlier this year set a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. He also touted joining RGGI during his 2014 election bid. 

"Gov. Wolf has taken meaningful steps to address climate change and clean energy, and he will continue to look for opportunities to do so," said spokesman JJ Abbott.

More:After 40 years, Three Mile Island meltdown looms large

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While the administration says it's open to discussion, one reason for not pushing the measure is an expected battle with leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature, which it sees as hostile to science demonstrating climate change.

For example, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County, who is chairman of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, recently hosted a meeting with climate-change skeptic Gregory Wrightstone.

Metcalfe didn't respond to calls for comment by deadline.

However, House GOP caucus spokesman Mike Straub said its members are far from opposed to looking at ways to improve zero-carbon emissions.

In fact, he said, talks — which include RGGI — are already underway as part of the debate over providing subsidies for nuclear energy firms. 

"It's the kind of thing that people are more interested than you realize," Straub said. "There's certainly some support among our members to take a look at what the best avenue for reducing carbon emissions is. ... Everything's on the table."

Senate Republican Caucus spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said Wolf's administration hasn't put the issue on the table and given the caucus anything to talk about, so it hasn't had its temperature taken.

The Wolf administration would have the authority to unilaterally set caps on carbon emissions, but doing so could expose it to legal challenges, officials said. It also would be able to enable the auction of emission allowances. 

However, the Legislature would need to come to a consensus about how to spend funds from the auctions. And officials within Wolf's administration doubt there's will in the Legislature to do it.

Subsidies: The apparent disconnect comes as lawmakers are entangled in a battle about whether to fight to keep the Three Mile Island nuclear plant open by giving the nuclear industry $500 million in subsidies annually.

Nuclear energy accounts for 93 percent of the state's zero-carbon emissions, and while the Environmental Defense Fund doesn't take a stance on the matter, it is pushing the state to broaden its horizons to lower emissions with RGGI, especially given the statistics.

Pennsylvania ranks fifth in CO2 emissions nationwide. It also has 14 counties that were graded an "F" in air quality by the American Lung Association — one of which is York County.

The state might not be able to afford lagging behind.

"(Pennsylvania) is a huge emitter of greenhouse gases," said Environmental Defense Fund senior policy analyst Mandy Warner. "There is a lot of risk for being left behind as a region. You don’t want it to be the dumping ground for dirty energy."

About RGGI: Referred to as a "cap-and-trade program," RGGI is made up of states that set a number of allowances to be given out to electric power plants that generate 25 megawatts or more. Each allowance covers one short ton of emissions, and the cap decreases each year.

From there, such plants can purchase additional allowances from regional auctions, and the funds are used by the state to reinvest in carbon-reduction programs and improving energy efficiency.

If a plant exceeds its allowances, it is charged the equivalent of triple the value of the allowances it is short.

The program has generated roughly $4 billion for participating states' economies since its inception in 2009, and annual carbon emissions have dropped about 50 percent in the covered regions.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.