November 26, 2021

PennFuture Op Ed in the Beaver County Times

Pennsylvania must stop coddling coal industry and transition to clean energy

World leaders descended upon Glasgow, Scotland in early November for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference and, in an unprecedented acknowledgment, declared that humanity will not meet urgent climate goals without phasing down coal consumption and the vast subsidies that keep the fossil fuel industry afloat.

Climate envoy John Kerry, addressing fellow negotiators, described subsidies for coal and other fossil fuels as the “definition of insanity” that “feed the very problem we’re here to try to cure.” The United States is culpable, and Pennsylvania is too. American taxpayers annually provide, at minimum, $4 billion in direct subsidies to coal. These policies result in trillions of dollars in damages worldwide including environmental, climate, and public health consequences. 

As the global conference draws to a close, the work must begin at home.

In U.S. electricity markets, both wind and solar produce cheaper energy causing coal-fired power plants to struggle to compete, yet about 20% of electric generation still comes from coal. In Pennsylvania, six coal plants remain, while three already have retirement or transition plans in place. Despite that, coal plants are still responsible for more than half of the emissions from Pennsylvania’s electricity sector, and coal power plants are the largest single source of greenhouse gases globally.

Even with the knowledge of coal’s outsized role in the climate crisis, elected leaders continue to coddle and give preferential treatment to coal and other dirty fossil fuels. Across Pennsylvania, the problem of needless fossil fuel subsidies is especially damaging. Through state and local incentives and tax breaks, the fossil fuel industry receives roughly $3.8 billion in annual subsidies, a PennFuture investigation revealed. The oil, gas and coal industries have defended these subsidies for decades, claiming economic disaster would follow if subsidies were ended. The reality is that crony capitalism robs the commonwealth of $2 billion annually in foregone revenues that would be better applied to other pressing needs. 

In Pennsylvania, heavily subsidized and poorly-regulated fracked gas bottomed out electricity prices, sending coal plant after plant into retirement. The coal mining industry that once was a major post-war employer has been shrinking year after year and now employs about 4,818 miners. President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda promises about $500 billion to create more innovative clean energy jobs in solar and wind to increase clean energy capacity, signaling to utilities that the transition from dirty to clean energy is here to stay.

These trends leave several Pennsylvania communities in an uncertain situation, waiting anxiously about whether a neighboring coal plant will abruptly retire. Keeping workers, small businesses, and communities in perpetual anxiety is unconscionable. The fault falls squarely on state leaders who fail year after year to prepare for the coming energy transition.

Rather than continue to subsidize an industry that clearly is no longer competitive, investments and support should be provided directly to communities so they can better prepare, plan and prosper moving forward. The Biden Administration’s Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization is looking for ways to help coal communities thrive in places like western Pennsylvania. Already, $38 billion was identified in potentially available federal funding. The American Jobs Plan may offer additional support, as will Build Back Better.

Participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) would offer more resources to Pennsylvania’s coal communities as well. Under the Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed CO2 Budget Trading Rule, fossil fuel plant operators would purchase allowances based on each facility’s carbon emissions. These auctions are expected to raise $300 million in new annual revenue. Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed a portion of auction proceeds be allocated to an Energy Communities Trust Fund, shoring up local tax revenues and helping to deliver fairness for workers and local businesses transitioning away from the fossil fuel industry to clean energy jobs. 

In the past, power plants closed with little or no investment to replace lost jobs and wages. The Energy Communities Trust Fund would introduce much-needed workforce development projects and unemployment compensation programs for dislocated workers and communities. Rather than continue to subsidize an industry that offers diminishing economic benefits with terrible environmental consequences, and serious harm to public health, lawmakers need to focus on a better future.

Abolishing the majority of subsidies would level the playing field sooner, freeing funds to ensure workers and their families are not left behind. By combining RGGI proceeds with a reallocation of federal, state and local resources currently wasted on subsidies, communities may finally be able to invest in a sustainable economic transition. 

The conclusion reached by world leaders in Glasgow couldn’t be more clear: The world must stop burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible if we want to avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis. A key component of achieving that goal has to include eliminating massive subsidies and incentives for the very fossil fuels that are destroying our planet. 

Jacquelyn Bonomo is president and CEO of PennFuture, a statewide environmental advocacy group with five offices across Pennsylvania. Larry J. Schweiger​ is the author of "The Climate Crisis and Corrupt Politics," and past president of National Wildlife Federation, PennFuture and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.