Wolf vetoes GOP effort to block carbon fee on Pennsylvania power plants | Pittsburgh City Paper

Wolf vetoes GOP effort to block carbon fee on Pennsylvania power plants

Wolf vetoes GOP effort to block carbon fee on Pennsylvania power plants
Photo: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Gov. Tom Wolf
Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed an attempt by the Pennsylvania General Assembly to block his administration from implementing a carbon fee on the commonwealth’s 58 fossil fuel-burning power plants.

Wolf, a Democrat, announced in 2019 he was bringing Pennsylvania into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. Under the initiative, each power plant must purchase credits at auction to account for every ton of carbon they will release into the atmosphere.

In a statement on Jan. 10, Wolf said that the initiative is “a vital step for Pennsylvania to reduce carbon emissions and achieve our climate goals. Addressing the global climate crisis is one of the most important and critical challenges we face.”

However, Wolf has faced consistent criticism from the Republican-controlled Legislature that the move is unlawful, and will cost jobs while accomplishing little to reduce carbon emissions.

State regulatory law allows the General Assembly to block a proposed regulation through a concurrent resolution, which passed the Senate in October and the House in December. However, Wolf has a chance to veto it, which he has vowed to do throughout the process.

The GOP opposition was buoyed by the trade unions that represent many workers who build, operate, and service coal and gas-fired power plants in the commonwealth. Normally staunch Democratic allies, these groups have opposed the plan.

At the most recent auction, the credits cost $13 a ton. Those revenues are then sent to the state to spend on anything from utility assistance and energy efficiency to green energy subsidies or, as Wolf has proposed, helping transition communities dependent on fossil fuel jobs.

The state has projected it will receive $187 million in the first auction, though most of Wolf’s plans for the revenues will require legislative approval.

Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest carbon emitting state in the country, according to federal data. According to state accounting of that pollution, power plants make up a little more than one in four of the commonwealth’s 269 million metric tons of carbon released into the atmosphere.

These emissions trap additional heat in the atmosphere, increasing temperatures and sparking widespread changes to the world’s climate and ecology.

According to the state’s climate assessment, average annual temperatures are expected to increase by almost 6 degrees Fahrenheit in Pennsylvania by 2050 due to the rising global temperatures. The state will also see increased precipitation, leading to more flooding and landslides, and more extreme weather events. 

Research is split on whether  the regional compact is successful in its efforts to  reduces carbon emissions, or its impact on electricity prices. A 2017 Congressional research review concluded that the initiative may have had a negligible impact on greenhouse gases so far, but the program has also served as “a training ground” and example for larger carbon reduction efforts.

Similar market-based programs have been used to fight acid rain by reducing sulfur emissions, including in Pennsylvania, but research also suggests such programs may only redistribute pollution, rather than eliminate it entirely.

Either way, Wolf has made clear that getting RGGI passed is a top priority. Sources have told the Capital-Star he has brought up state funding as leverage to bring wary Democrats in line on the vote.

With the veto, the resolution returns to the Senate for a potential override. Such a vote requires a two-thirds majority, and neither the Senate nor the House passed the resolution with such a margin.

A Senate Republican spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

Legal action also appears likely. Republican lawmakers and power plant owners each have threatened to file  a lawsuit against the policy.

Pennsylvania’s status in the initiative also could change if the state’s next governor decides to take the commonwealth out of it. Wolf will leave office in January 2023 after serving the constitutional maximum of two, four-year terms.

Stephen Caruso is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.