In private, Shapiro’s working group on climate change meets

The group tasked by Gov. Josh Shapiro with developing a state-level plan to fight climate change has started meeting.

Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks at a podium.

Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The group tasked by Gov. Josh Shapiro with developing a state-level plan to fight climate change met for the first time this week, a step the Democrat promised to take when he questioned his predecessor’s strategy to make Pennsylvania the first major fossil fuel state to adopt carbon pricing.

The group met Tuesday, unannounced, at a time when Shapiro is walking a tightrope between allies: those who support capping planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and labor unions whose members work on coal and natural gas sites.

The group is chaired by Jackson Morris of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, and Mike Dunleavy, a retired business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 5 in Pittsburgh.

Shapiro’s office declined to identify any other members of the group or discuss the instructions that the governor gave to the working group.

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Further, Shapiro’s office said the governor gave the working group no timeline to come up with recommendations, and is letting the group meet privately, without keeping public minutes of its meetings.

Pressed for details about what, exactly, the working group is supposed to do, Shapiro’s office pointed back to his criticism as a candidate of the centerpiece of then-Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to fight climate change.

It could hurt the state’s energy industry, drive up electric prices and do little to curtail greenhouse gases, Shapiro has said.

“Governor Shapiro is focused on developing a comprehensive climate and energy policy that protects and creates energy jobs, takes real action to address climate change, protects consumers and ensures Pennsylvania has reliable, affordable, and clean power for the long term,” Shapiro’s office said. “As he committed to doing while running for this office, the governor has convened a group of environmental, labor and business leaders to work together and recommend solutions that meet this test.”

Shapiro’s most well-defined clean-energy goal is a pledge to ensure that Pennsylvania uses 30% of its electricity from renewable power sources by 2030, up from the current 8% in state law.

However, that idea faces a steep climb in the Legislature, where the Republican-controlled Senate has been protective of hometown coal and natural gas industries in the nation’s No. 2 gas state.

For his part, Wolf went around the Legislature.

To try to reduce greenhouse gases, Wolf used his regulatory authority to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a consortium of 12 states that imposes a price and declining cap on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Wolf called it a “historic, proactive and progressive approach.” His administration estimated it would cut up to 225 million tons of carbon dioxide through 2030, compared to its estimate that Pennsylvania emitted 269 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2018.

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For now, Wolf’s plan is on hold in court as judges consider legal challenges by Republican lawmakers and fossil-fuel interests.

Wolf’s plan was supported by environmental advocates, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, and solar, wind and nuclear power producers. But it received sustained pushback from Republican lawmakers who accused Wolf of lacking the legal authority either to join the consortium and impose the fee without legislative approval.

It was also opposed by coal- and gas-related interests that feared higher input costs, industrial and commercial power users that feared higher electricity bills and labor unions that feared its workers will lose jobs.

Publicly, Shapiro’s administration has remained noncommittal about whether it will follow through on Wolf’s carbon-pricing plan.

Still, Shapiro’s acting environmental protection secretary, Rich Negrin, acknowledged during legislative hearings last month that Shapiro’s administration will continue defending Wolf’s plan in court.

He called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative “a vehicle” that could help meet Shapiro’s “strong and very aspirational goals” to help the environment.

Shapiro’s administration also raised eyebrows by writing $663 million into its budget plan for next year from the credits that must be bought by polluting power plants under the multistate consortium.

Wolf had proposed using money from pollution credits for environmental improvements and energy efficiency programs to lower electricity bills.

Pressed in a hearing to explain the effect of Wolf’s plan on everyday electric ratepayers, Negrin put the onus on the working group.

“I think every single one of those questions is a good, strong, valid question that needs to be answered by the working group,” Negrin said. “And I think that’s exactly what they’re talking about.”

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