PennFuture Op-Ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This Op-Ed appeared in the Sept. 25 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

Rob Altenburg: Pennsylvania should join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but for the right reasons

A poll conducted earlier this year by Franklin & Marshall College showed that a strong majority — 68% — of Pennsylvanians are increasingly worried about the effects of climate change and want our leaders to do more to fight it.

Our commonwealth, after all, is the fourth-largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions in the nation, spewing about 220 million metric tons into the atmosphere per year. We have a burden to do our part, yet our elected officials in Harrisburg continue to prove time and again that they lack the vision and will to seriously cut our carbon pollution.

The current legislative session is a prime example. For nearly two years, our elected officials have debated preserving the state’s nuclear power plants, capping carbon pollution and expanding zero-carbon energy sources.

But just last week, the state House of Representatives passed legislation (House Bill 1100) to hand out billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for petrochemical projects, one of the largest industrial sources of carbon pollution in the world. This action hammers home the point that our elected officials not only lack the will to address the climate crisis, but they intend to make it worse by trying to pass a package of bills that would drastically expand fossil fuel infrastructure across Pennsylvania.

Instead of incentivizing dirty energy and petrochemical projects that greatly exacerbate climate change, the Legislature should strive to transition Pennsylvania toward clean, zero carbon energy sources.

That goal could be accomplished, in part, by Pennsylvania joining a multi-state organization called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The regional initiative would require fossil fuel-based power plants to annually buy a credit for every ton of carbon they emit, and the number of credits available to purchase would decrease over time. There are currently nine states enrolled in RGGI, including New York, Maryland and Delaware. New Jersey is set to become the 10th state when it rejoins on Jan. 1, 2020.

In addition to being one of the most cost effective means of addressing carbon pollution, joining RGGI would encourage cleaner electric generation by imposing a price on carbon that accounts, in part, for the costs of fossil fuel pollution — possibly to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

That means there could be an influx of new revenues to assist our state’s transition to a clean energy economy. The revenue generated under RGGI could be used to ease the transition for workers and communities that are already being impacted by the retirement of old fossil fuel plants, and to develop new jobs by boosting zero-carbon energy technologies and industries.

Earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025 and 80% by 2050, compared with 2005 levels. Joining RGGI would be a strong first step to demonstrate that Pennsylvania is serious about achieving those goals. It is especially important for Pennsylvania to take this action at a time when our planet’s climate is rapidly changing and federal leadership is absent.

That’s not to say that support for joining RGGI should be unconditional.

If, in exchange, policy leaders are asked to accept anti-environmental measures that promote fossil fuel use, the result would be little more than greenwashing additional subsidies for the gas and coal industries, undermining the purpose of RGGI in the first place. Such tradeoffs would ensure that the Commonwealth will never achieve the deep carbon reductions we drastically need.

To reach our carbon goals, we need to accelerate the construction of new sources of clean renewable energy like solar power as soon as possible. For all the benefits of joining RGGI, its current targets aren’t stringent enough to do this. That is why states like New York, New Jersey and Maryland supplement the program with aggressive targets for clean renewable generation.

Pennsylvania should join RGGI, but for the right reasons, and with an understanding that it’s just one piece of a much larger puzzle to fight climate change.

Regardless, we cannot move backward in our fight against climate change. Pennsylvania is already well behind in its obligation to do its part in this fight.

It’s time for Pennsylvania’s leaders to show they are serious about finally addressing our carbon pollution, and inclusion in RGGI would be a significant first step.

Rob Altenburg, based in Harrisburg, is the director of the PennFuture Energy Center.