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PA Opens Public Comment Period on Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Pennsylvania is poised to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). More than a year since Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf directed the state Department of Environmental Protection to begin the process of joining the Initiative, the proposed rule changes are open to public comment.

The RGGI is a regional partnership among 10 states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic that are wholly or in part connected to the same regional electrical distribution grid to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electric generation. If Pennsylvania joins the group, it will become the 11th member-state of the RGGI. The Initiative establishes a carbon cap-and-trade system between the collective of states, with revenues from the auctioning of carbon credits being used for other projects to combat climate change. If Pennsylvania were to join, the revenues would be directed into the state’s Clean Air Fund.

Like nearly all state-directed environmental measures in energy-dominant Pennsylvania, the proposal to join the RGGI has been met with some controversy, primarily from Republican lawmakers. Opponents of the plan note the potential for significant job losses in the already declining Pennsylvania coal industry, with little assistance for those out of work due to the effects of joining the RGGI. Coal has declined significantly in recent years, with total electrical generation from coal generating 13.84 quadrillion BTU in 2017, falling to just 11.31 quadrillion BTU in 2019. As the third most used source of electrical generation, coal has been outpaced by natural gas for years, with a rise in renewable sources displacing coal.

Others argue that the mandates of the RGGI would lead to a $432 million increase in electricity bills for PA residents within the first year of joining, as well as the overall ineffectiveness of the Initiative’s aim, as reductions in emissions in PA would simply “leak” into other states, thus nullifying any benefit.

Advocates address these issues, pushing for a macro-level view of the program. In regard to the coal industry, advocates argue that the life expectancy of the nation’s coal industry is declining by the day, with some believing national-level policy to eradicate coal from our national energy mix is imminent. Rather than hold to a dying industry, some argue for the coal industry to take proactive measures now, like adhering to the RGGI’s guidelines and making necessary changes to their operations to better prepare for the inevitable.

Proponents also note the DEP’s estimation that joining the RGGI would result in the creation of approximately 27,000 jobs and a $2 billion net increase in Gross State Product as carbon credit revenues would be invested in renewable energy, thus creating jobs and stimulating state production. Studies have determined that the coal industry in PA accounts for approximately 17,000 jobs, directly and indirectly.

Aside from the economic facts, those who favor RGGI also trumpet the environmental and public health benefits of participation. Per the DEP’s website dedicated to the RGGI, participation would lead to a reduction of 188 million tons of carbon pollution from the atmosphere, as well as reductions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution. These reductions would then lead to benefits for the public’s health, lowering the risk of respiratory disease such as asthma for those living in high-pollution areas.

The DEP’s completion of its rulemaking changes prompts the period of public comment. As the topic is contentious and controversial within the Commonwealth, 10 public hearings will be held. The first meeting will be held on Dec. 8 and the final one on Dec. 14. All meetings will be held virtually, in accordance with COVID-19 precautionary measures.

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