Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf took a step toward capping greenhouse gas emissions from power plants Thursday, part of an effort to fight climate change in a heavily populated and fossil fuel-rich state that has long been one of the nation’s biggest polluters and power producers.
Wolf, a Democrat, ordered his administration to start working on regulations to bring Pennsylvania into a nine-state consortium of Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states that sets a price and declining limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
If Wolf is successful, Pennsylvania would become the first major fossil fuel state to adopt a carbon pricing policy. For now, just the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and California impose a price on carbon emissions, according to the Virginia-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
“If we want a Pennsylvania that is habitable for our children and our grandchildren, where temperatures aren’t in the 90s as they were yesterday in October, and flooding doesn’t destroy homes and businesses over and over again, we need to get serious right now about addressing the climate crisis,” Wolf told a news conference Thursday in his Capitol offices.
Joining the consortium could face pushback, if not a court challenge, from the Republican-controlled Legislature, which is historically protective of Pennsylvania’s influential coal and natural gas industries.
And while Wolf’s move was embraced by consortium states, renewable energy advocates and nuclear power plant owners, some see it as lacking without limits beyond the power sector, like California’s program, or on methane emissions.
Pennsylvania is the nation’s fourth-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and the third-biggest electric power state, according to government figures.
At almost 40%, Pennsylvania’s energy sector is its largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Under the cap-and-trade program, its dozens of power plants fueled by coal, oil and natural gas could be forced to buy hundreds of millions of dollars in credits annually that the state could then spend on clean energy efforts.
Pennsylvania would be, by far, the biggest emissions state in the consortium. It emits about 92 million tons a year, compared with the consortium’s 2019 cap of 80.2 million tons.
In consortium states, owners of fossil-fuel power plants with a capacity of 25 megawatts or more must buy a credit for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit.
That gives fossil fuel plants an incentive to lower their emissions, said Jackson Morris, a climate and clean energy specialist for the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council.
Meanwhile, it makes non-emitting plants — such as nuclear plants, wind turbines and solar installations — more cost competitive in power markets, Morris said.
The earliest Pennsylvania could reasonably join and see the program take effect is 2021.
Wolf’s aides have approached top Republican lawmakers in recent months about passing legislation to authorize the move, without success.
Still, the governor’s administration maintains that it can write regulations for the cap-and-trade program under its existing authority to regulate air pollution, although Wolf acknowledged the process would eventually need “buy-in” from lawmakers.
Wolf also said his administration would need to ensure that the “transition to a cleaner energy mix does not leave workers and communities behind.”
He said he could not project how much Pennsylvania could reduce its carbon footprint through participation in the consortium. And while he said he did not know to what extent the price on carbon would trickle down to ratepayers, clean-energy advocates said money from the credits could bolster energy-efficiency programs and low-cost energy sources to suppress electricity rates.
Reaction from Republican lawmakers and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry was mixed Thursday, with vows to protect the state’s homegrown industries and ratepayers, and an insistence that Wolf’s regulations reflect their views.
“Climate change is real and so is the need to have the business community at the table to discuss solutions and consider the tradeoffs,” the chamber’s CEO, Gene Barr, said in a statement.
Some pointed to federal data showing Pennsylvania’s carbon dioxide emissions already shrinking more than 20% between 2005 and 2016, driven by a shift from coal to natural gas as a source for electricity generation.
House Republican leaders struck an oppositional tone, saying they strongly disagree with Wolf’s “go-it-alone” approach and warned that Wolf’s administration doesn’t have the authority to “bind” Pennsylvania into multi-state agreements without approval from lawmakers.