The centerpiece of Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to fight climate change passed its last regulatory hurdle Wednesday, in a hard-fought bid to make Pennsylvania the first major fossil fuel state to adopt a carbon pricing policy.
The plan to impose a price on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants in Pennsylvania won a 3-2 party-line vote from the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, a five-member panel of gubernatorial and legislative appointees.
The commission voted after almost six hours of testimony and nearly two years of Wolf’s administration working on the regulation and shepherding it through the long regulatory process.
The vote allows Pennsylvania, through regulation, to join a multistate consortium, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which sets a price and declining limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
By joining the consortium, “Pennsylvania is taking a historic, proactive and progressive approach that will have significant positive environmental, public health and economic impacts,” Wolf said in a statement after the vote.
Mark Szybist, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it the “most important climate action that Pennsylvania has taken in more than a decade.”
At 34%, Pennsylvania’s energy sector is its largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the most pervasive greenhouse gas.
Under the cap-and-trade program, its dozens of power plants fueled by coal, oil and natural gas would be forced to buy hundreds of millions of dollars in credits in the coming years that the state could then spend on clean energy efforts.
Wolf’s administration had initially sought support in the Republican-controlled Legislature and, failing to get traction there, pursued the matter through regulation.
In the nation’s No. 2 natural gas state and its No. 3 coal-mining state, opponents were numerous.
They included coal- and natural gas-related interests who would pay more to operate, industrial and business groups that fear higher electricity bills and labor unions whose workers maintain power plants, build gas pipelines and mine coal, fearing a loss of jobs.
There was also an outcry from coal communities, including one testifier who said he worked at a coal-fired power plant and called it “an assassination of blue-collar jobs.”
A chief argument against Wolf’s plan had been that making fossil fuels more expensive would send power generation to neighboring states with no emissions caps and devastate local coal-mining jobs and economies.
Others questioned its legality or the need to do it if Pennsylvania won’t directly see more moderate temperatures or weather events.
The Wolf administration projects reductions in air pollution and electricity bills, improvements in public health and a stronger economy.
Proponents argued that the time for action is now, and that acting sooner will put Pennsylvania in a better position to capitalize on a growing clean energy economy and pave the way for more states and the federal government to take more aggressive action.
“Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is in each state’s self-interest to do it,” Szybist said in an interview.
The heavily populated and fossil fuel-rich Pennsylvania has long been one of the nation’s biggest polluters and power producers and the jury is out on whether a carbon-pricing program would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Its effectiveness could depend on where emissions caps are set and whether money from the emissions credits are wisely spent on clean energy and energy efficiency programs.
The regulation could take several months to be officially published and become final. Once it does, Pennsylvania would join California, Washington and the 11 states already in the greenhouse gas consortium to adopt a carbon pricing policy, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Wolf wants it to take effect next year, although a legal challenge is expected before that. The Republican-controlled Legislature also may try to muster veto-proof majorities to block it.
In theory, electricity from solar, wind and nuclear power generators would become more cost competitive in electricity markets.
In some cases, Wolf’s plan received support from backers of higher-efficiency natural gas plants and labor unions involved in renewable energy projects. It also motivated the Ohio-based owner of nuclear-powered Beaver Valley Power Station to put off plans to close the plant.
Coal advocates say the plan will prematurely shut down coal mines and coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania.
Rep. James Struzzi, R-Indiana, whose district is home to two coal-fired plants, told the panel that people are “terrified” of what carbon-pricing will do their community.
“It’s an assault on a particular industry to benefit other industries, and that is simply not acceptable,” Struzzi said.
By MARC LEVY
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