Pennsylvania's Participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Would Be A Game-Changer

By Tom Schuster

The latest scientific reports convey an unprecedented sense of urgency to act on climate change. Last year, the United States Global Change Research Program released the Fourth National Climate Assessment stating that the climate crisis is no longer a future threat, but that its impacts are being felt today. Several studies show the cost of inaction in Pennsylvania is high. For example, tidal portions of the Delaware River will rise to inundate the Philadelphia International Airport, and nearby neighborhoods. Agricultural production is expected to see major losses in corn (PA’s most important crop) and extreme rainstorms will continue to increase landslides and flooding throughout the Commonwealth.

Fortunately, Governor Wolf issued an Executive Order last fall to initiate a regulation that can cut Pennsylvania’s carbon pollution in a very cost effective way by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). With complementary investments in clean energy, energy efficiency, economic diversification and transition, the Commonwealth has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, while reducing our power-sector carbon pollution by at least 30% by 2030, and doubling the climate benefits of the RGGI program as a whole by virtue of the size of our electric sector.

Our Commonwealth is a globally significant emitter of the carbon pollution that’s helped fuel the climate crisis. Nationally, we’re ranked in the top four states for emissions related to fracked gas and coal use. We emitted more energy-related carbon pollution in 2015 than 172 of the 194 nations that signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement. We can and must do our part to control this pollution before it is too late, and in the process we can help grow our clean energy economy.

Photo by Jarod Carruthers

RGGI currently has ten participating states with Virginia expected to join by 2021. RGGI states set limits on carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution from power plants, and those limits decline over time. Generators must pay an allowance for each ton of CO2 emitted. If allowances are auctioned or sold to generators, the proceeds can be reinvested in beneficial ways. Research by the Analysis Group shows that these investments have created over 44,000 job-years in the RGGI region since 2009.

RGGI has been in effect since 2008, and a recent review by the Acadia Center of the program’s first ten years found that:

  • CO2 emissions from RGGI-covered power plants have fallen by 47%, outpacing the rest of the country by 90%, while reductions in other air pollutants from these plants have resulted in over $5.7 billion in health and productivity benefits
  • Electricity prices in RGGI states have fallen by 5.7%, while prices have increased in the rest of the country by 8.6%
  • The combined economies of the RGGI states have grown by 47%, outpacing growth in the rest of the country by 31%
  • RGGI states have generated $3.2 billion in allowance auction proceeds, the majority of which have been invested in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs

The nonpartisan research firm Resources for the Future recently modeled what our energy prices and generation mix would look like if Pennsylvania participated in RGGI. Some key findings through 2026 include:

  • All scenarios produce significant carbon dioxide pollution reductions relative to business as usual. Many have noted that Pennsylvania’s power-sector carbon emissions have declined in recent years as power from fracked gas replaces power from coal. However, this analysis indicates that going forward, gas is projected to replace most of our existing nuclear generation in the absence of any carbon limits. This would lead to significant carbon emissions increases. Without a carbon cap, 6 of the 8 remaining nuclear units are projected to retire by 2026, and over 5,000 megawatts of new gas power plants would come online to replace them. With a carbon cap, no additional gas plants would be developed.
  • Electricity cost increases are minimal, and in some scenarios costs go down. The worst case scenario from a cost perspective increases the average residential electric bill by about $0.32 per month, or about $3.80 per year. This is about a tenth of the estimated cost of last year’s proposed nuclear bailout legislation (HB 11). That scenario assumes that allowance proceeds are directed to the general fund, or otherwise spent on projects unrelated to energy. If instead the proceeds are invested in a combination of energy efficiency projects and customer bill rebates, the average residential bill is projected to decrease by about $1.45 per month, saving customers over $17 per year.

Regulating electric sector carbon pollution and linking to RGGI is a very important step that our Commonwealth must take to begin addressing the existential threat posed by climate disruption, and to do so in a way that is cost effective and supportive of our diverse energy economy. It is by no means the only thing that we must do, and once we’ve capped electric sector carbon we must work to ratchet down the caps and shift other fossil fuel end-uses to electricity to further reduce carbon pollution in line with what the science says is required.

Unfortunately, the climate change deniers and fossil fuel boosters in the PA legislature are trying to block this critical regulation. They’ve introduced HB 2025 and SB 950, which would not only prevent Pennsylvania from regulating electric sector carbon pollution and linking to RGGI, it would also revoke existing authority under the Air Pollution Control Act of the Dept. of Environmental Protection to regulate any greenhouse gas in any sector. On February 5th, House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee Chair Daryl Metcalfe, the most vocal climate denier in the Capitol, held a sham hearing on HB 2025, in which eleven opponents of PA’s participation in RGGI were invited to testify, but not a single supporter was permitted to speak. He wouldn’t even allow ERE Committee members to ask critical questions of the testifiers.

In a state that currently lacks any limits on climate disrupting pollution, the oil and gas industry knows even limited caps are a slippery slope and a threat to their risky business model. The RGGI rulemaking is the most significant opportunity we have had in over a decade to reduce our Commonwealth’s carbon footprint, and we need to defend it against attack.

Please be on the lookout for action alerts on the topic over the course of the year. We’ll need to generate calls and emails to elected officials, letters to the editor of local papers, and people to give testimony at DEP-hosted hearings later in the year. In-district legislative meetings are particularly important; if interested, please contact me and I can provide you with materials and talking points.

Pennsylvania is too big of a contributor to climate change for us to abdicate responsibility. We can get this right. We can still have a thriving energy economy while acting on climate, and we should start by joining RGGI.