In a recent hearing in Harrisburg, Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, vocally opposed Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to have Pennsylvania implement a carbon cap-and-invest program similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). He argued that the RGGI plan was going to force coal plants in his district to close and because of this, “communities are going to be devastated.”
The senator may claim that a cap-and-invest program would devastate the coal facilities in his communities, but the hard truth is that these facilities have been in rapid decline for years and that trend will continue with or without RGGI.
As recently as 2007, coal generated over 122 million megawatt-hours of electricity in Pennsylvania, but competition from natural gas generation drove that number down to just over 38 million MWh by 2019. Very soon, only five large conventional steam coal plants will be left including Homer City and Conemaugh in Indiana County along with the Cheswick, Keystone, and Montour plants. More than half of those units are over 50 years old — only one (Homer City’s Unit 3 built in 1977) is younger than 45. They are rapidly approaching retirement, and no new plants are being built in the state to replace them.
As these plants age, their operation and maintenance costs will continue to rise and competition from newer gas plants and clean renewable energy will only get more intense. The companies that run these plants have seen the handwriting on the wall. Just last year, PSE&G sold its ownership stake in Keystone and Conemaugh and announced to its shareholders that it is getting out of the coal generation business entirely.
We agree that the loss of jobs associated with these coal plants will be devastating for these communities. But for Pittman to blame environmental regulations for the decline of the coal industry is a red herring that detracts attention from the real cause. In spite of President Trump’s vocal support for coal and aggressive moves to gut environmental protections, the Energy Information Administration reports coal-fired electricity generation has fallen almost 20 percent during his administration alone.
The facts are simple: Times have changed and older and less-efficient technologies, like coal, aren’t competitive in today’s market. Ignoring this reality by pointing to industry boogeymen like environmental regulations and RGGI is disingenuous and a disservice to coal workers.
Lost in the senator’s rhetoric is a real plan to do something meaningful for coal employees and the communities that will inevitably be impacted. The two coal plants in Indiana County employ hundreds of people, and surrounding towns rely on these facilities for economic stability.
Our elected leaders must recognize that this industry is in decline and be proactive in building a future for these workers and communities. One way of doing that is by investing in the transition to more sustainable industries so that long-term, family-sustaining jobs are plentiful in Pittman’s district and the commonwealth.
The RGGI plan Pittman opposes could actually be a solution to help plan for that future.
Under RGGI, polluters would no longer be able to dump their waste into the air for free, but instead would have to pay for their waste like everybody else. For every ton of pollution they emit, polluters would be required to purchase an allowance through a market-based auction program. The fees paid for those allowances would come back to Pennsylvania and could total over $200 million each year.
These are critical funds that could be used to support our coal communities. But in order to do that, we need our elected officials like Pittman to embrace RGGI and craft legislation to allow those funds to be invested in programs to help coal workers across Pennsylvania.
Instead of our elected officials sticking their heads in the sand, the time is now to plan for the future and embrace policies like RGGI that will ease society’s inevitable transition away from coal toward a clean energy economy.
So we ask: Sen. Pittman, what is your plan for helping Pennsylvania’s coal workers?
Rob Altenburg is the director of the PennFuture Energy Center. PennFuture is an environmental advocacy organization with five offices across Pennsylvania.