July 15, 2021

Erie Times-News: Why GOP senators are blasting a Pa. environmental board's vote on climate change

A state board’s decision that moves Pennsylvania closer to joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative was rebuked by several Republican lawmakers this week.  

Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board voted 15-4 on Tuesday to adopt the final rulemaking for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multistate effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Gov. Tom Wolf directed the state Department of Environmental Protection to join the RGGI through the regulatory process in October 2019.  

“This is a milestone in helping Pennsylvanians get one step closer to combating the ills of climate change,” state Secretary of Environmental Protection Patrick McDonnell said in a statement following the board’s vote.

The statement from the Department of Environmental Protection said Pennsylvania has the fifth highest carbon dioxide-emitting electricity generation sector in the country. Using 2005 figures, the state’s goal is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025 and by 80% as of 2050.  

In a statement, PennFuture senior director for energy and climate Rob Altenburg said the vote was a “significant milestone after years of climate inaction in Harrisburg.”  

The vote was taken after a public comment period that included more than 14,000 written comments and testimony from 449 people, according to PennFuture, which claimed the “vast majority” of comments supported the move toward the initiative.  

“The science is clear,” Altenburg said.

“To combat climate change we need to do everything we can to cut our carbon pollution — particularly from fossil fuel generation — and cooperating with other states participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is currently our best chance to do that in a real, measurable, and cost-effective way.” 

The RGGI is an agreement among 11 Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power-generation industry through a cap-and-invest plan.  

States that have joined the RGGI so far include: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.  

Revenue is generated through states selling carbon dioxide emission allowances and, in return, investing those dollars into clean energy efforts, renewable energy and other programs.

Proponents have said it is a vital step toward reducing carbon dioxide and addressing climate change while opponents argue that the RGGI would hurt the state’s economy, negatively affect energy customers and devastate the economically fragile coal-fired power industry.   

Several Republican state senators released statements criticizing the board’s vote, warning that it would be a bad move for Pennsylvania to join the RGGI.  

State Sen. Gene Yaw of Lycoming County, the chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said the RGGI “is a superficial stab at addressing climate change.”  

Yaw contended Pennsylvania has already reduced carbon emissions more than what other RGGI states have done and joining the initiative would only lead to higher energy costs and fewer jobs in the state.  

“Energy will not be cheap and will not come from Pennsylvania. In fact, estimates show that 86% of the energy will not be coming from RGGI states. What’s the benefit to Pennsylvania? The benefit to Pennsylvania is nothing. All we have done is create jobs in West Virginia and Ohio,” Yaw said.

Indiana County state Sen. Joe Pittman, the vice chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said he was “not surprised, but extremely disappointed” with the board’s approval.  

“The EQB ruling completely ignores the many serious concerns expressed by affected communities across the Commonwealth, in particular the ones that rely on the carbon-emitting generation of electricity and the various industries that support it for their economic well-being,” said Pittman, who added that the approval is a “setback for working people, rate payers, school districts and municipalities.”  

Washington County state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, the chairwoman of the Labor and Industry Committee, said she was “outraged” by Wolf’s pushing the state to join the RGGI.

Bartolotta said that if Pennsylvania joins the RGGI through Wolf’s directive, it would be the only member that did not join with legislative approval.  

“Pennsylvania will also be the only major energy producing states to join RGGI,” she said. “There is good reason that broad, bipartisan opposition exists across the state to join RGGI as this move will have a devastating ripple-effect on our economy.”  

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Bill requiring Legislature approval 
An effort to require that the Legislature approve Pennsylvania joining the RGGI passed the Senate in June, but was not acted on in the House by the time lawmakers recessed for the summer.  

Pittman’s Senate Bill 119 passed 35-15 on June 14 with six Democratic senators joining Republicans in backing it. The vote margin would be enough to override a veto by Wolf. 

Democratic senators voting for the bill included James Brewster, Wayne Fontana and Lindsey Williams, all of Allegheny County; Marty Flynn of Lackawanna County; John Kane of Chester County; and Tina Tartaglione of Philadelphia. 

The bill is still being considered by the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. The Legislature returns to the state Capitol this fall.

J.D. Prose is a reporter with the USA TODAY Network's Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jprose@gannett.com.