Cap-and-trade system in Pa.? Maybe, if these lawmakers get their way

Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant in Shippingport, Pa. (Reid Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant in Shippingport, Pa. (Reid Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

Pennsylvania state lawmakers rallied Wednesday behind a clean-energy bill that would slash carbon emissions from the electric power sector at least 90% by 2040.

The bill, known as the Climate Change Mitigation and Energy Transition Act, would encourage the implementation of a “cap-and-invest” program, which would set a cap on the amount of carbon a power generator could emit and a price the company would pay if it went over the limit.

The money generated through the program would go to an Energy Transition Fund, which would invest in clean-energy projects, economic development, and low-income energy assistance programs.

State Sen. Art Haywood — a co-sponsor of the measure drafted by State Sen. Jay Costa, who will formally introduce the bill in the fall — led the rally in Abington Township and said the bill is an important tool in forestalling potentially catastrophic climate change.

“If we are unwilling to accept a cap, then that means we are willing to accept unlimited growth [of carbon emissions], and we know that that leads to the end of the planet,” he said.

According to the Energy Information Administration, Pennsylvania is the fourth largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions in the nation, emitting nearly 220 million metric tons of CO2 per year. More than a third of that — about 82 million metric tons — comes from the electricity sector, though that’s down from a peak of 126 million metric tons in 2007.

Haywood stressed the need for action but admits Pennsylvania’s political realities — including a Republican-controlled legislature and diverse and robust energy sector — make the bill’s road to passage a long one.

“This is going to be a tremendous challenge in Pennsylvania,” he said. “We’ve got natural gas, we’ve got coal. So because we’ve got these industries in the state, it makes it much more challenging for us to get legislation that reduces emissions.”

He said it could take five years — or more — before the bill has a chance at passage.

“This is all part of the social change process,” Haywood said. “We cannot get to an end without a beginning, and that’s another reason why this legislation is so important.”

The bill does not provide an actual cap on emissions. If it were to pass, Pennsylvania could either decide to set a cap unilaterally if it wanted to do a program on its own, or it could negotiate with other states if it wanted to join a regional program, like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, also known as RGGI.

New Jersey recently voted to rejoin RGGI after leaving the program in 2012. It will be the 11th state in the region to participate in the program when its membership goes into effect on Jan. 1.

Davitt Woodwell, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, said the proposed legislation will allow the state to use market-driven approaches to reduce carbon.

“This, I think, really sets the tone and says from the General Assembly to the governor: Go for it,” Woodwell said.

For Gov. Tom Wolf’s part, spokesman J.J. Abbott said in an email, “The governor strongly supports the expansion of renewable energy in Pennsylvania and applauds Senators Haywood and [co-sponsor Steve] Santarsiero for their leadership in this area.”

In January, the governor signed an executive order for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26% by 2025 and 80% by 2050. It also established the GreenGov Council, a coordinating body that would help achieve those goals.

“He is eager to work with the legislature to use every available tool to clean our energy mix and reduce emissions to combat climate change,” Abbott said.

But Nick Troutman, director of the state’s Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said cap-and-trade is the wrong approach.

“Pennsylvania is at the forefront of clean energy technology that is already reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the board,” Troutman said in an email. “The legislative proposals I have seen are not about reducing carbon emissions. They are about transitioning from fossil fuels. Markets move and markets fluctuate, and I don’t believe mandating a large percentage of Pennsylvania’s competitive energy market or more is a step in the right direction.”

Mark Szybist, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said arguments that a cap-and-trade bill duplicates clean-energy programs already on the books are wrong.

“It’s like saying to a carpenter, ‘Well, you have a saw. Why do you need a hammer?’” he said. “We need any number of tools to tackle [climate change], including energy-efficiency standards, renewable standards, and carbon limits and pricing.”

U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, who was visiting her district for a gun-violence event, also attended this one and urged state lawmakers to move forward with the bill and continue to address climate change.

“When everybody from the pope to the Pentagon to prisoners tells you this is an extraordinary threat to our future,” Dean said, “we ought to be listening.”

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