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Pennsylvania is the first major fossil fuel state to enter the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

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Pennsylvania’s recent entry into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) made it the first major fossil fuel-producing state to join, but the move had its share of detractors. After much legal and public debate, the agreement has been put into effect. Here’s everything you need to know.

What is RGGI?
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection website describes the RGGI as “an initiative of 10 New England and Mid-Atlantic states, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector while generating economic growth.” The initiative, essentially a carbon trading agreement between Northeastern states, puts a limit on emissions inside the region. Within this limit, states are able to buy, sell and trade amongst themselves for proportional shares of that emissions limit. This way, states with greater needs can “borrow” energy from states with fewer residents and power needs, ensuring a more efficient distribution.

There is also an economic growth element to the agreement, which is designed to generate jobs and revenue to invest in clean energy throughout the region. City of Philadelphia Office of Sustainability Director Christine Knapp, who recently announced she is leaving the position, explained that these investments will benefit the consumer, saving Pennsylvanians on their utility bills each month while reducing emissions. “Traditional government grant programs have often been very top-down, so I’m looking forward to see[ing] how the state sets this up to be more grassroots-driven and be more frontline communities-driven, and seeing how we can start programs at the smaller scale level rather than relying on trickle-down market trends,” she said.

What about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions?
The Supreme Court recently ruled in the case of West Virginia v. EPA that the federal agency overstepped its authority to regulate carbon emissions. Though this ruling will have sweeping legal, regulatory and environmental consequences (many of which are not quite clear yet), it will actually have minimal impact on RGGI and its participant states.

However, the fact that the agreement is largely unaffected by the ruling only underscores its importance. With a lack of federal regulation and oversight, state and regional efforts to reduce emissions will be some of the country’s most powerful tools to combat climate change.

Robert Routh, policy and regulatory attorney at the Clean Air Council, explained that the states involved in the initiative have the same goal: to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. To do this, they collectively created a template for how to set up a state program, but each state has the ability to tweak and tailor this template to fit its unique economy. To this end, each state adopted its own program under its own state laws and constitution.

In other words, the states could have, of their own accord, adopted the very same laws without RGGI even existing. But instead, the states cooperated to make the regulations similar enough to allow for power plant trading.

This, he said, provides a good model of states acting sovereignly to work collectively toward a common goal and make it easier for regulated entities to comply. The states not only enter a larger, regional marketplace, but also have a unified approach for confronting climate change.

It will be more important than ever that states like Pennsylvania take the reins and lead in the fight to tackle climate change.”

— David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment

Who supports RGGI?
A number of Philadelphia City officials as well as NGOs have come out in support of the initiative. David Masur, executive director at PennEnvironment, noted that Pennsylvania’s status as a major fossil
fuel-producing state marked a shift in the initiative’s reach, particularly in the wake of the SCOTUS decision. “It will be more important than ever that states like Pennsylvania take the reins and lead in the fight to tackle climate change,” Masur said.

“It’s a huge change, I think, substantively and politically,” he said, noting that Pennsylvania’s power sector emissions equal the sum of all emissions from the rest of the RGGI states combined. He also added that RGGI could pave the way for other major fossil fuel-producing states such as Illinois to enter RGGI or similar agreements.
Routh, whose organization was heavily involved in supporting the initiative’s passage into law, said that “RGGI has been a remarkably successful cooperative effort among the states that have participated in it since 2009.”

Knapp also said she is looking forward to working with Pennsylvania citizens to hear feedback on where their priorities lie. While receiving an investment allocation proportional to Pennsylvania’s population size is important to Knapp, she is also hoping to hold open dialogues to decide how they should be used.

Who opposes it?
Although Pennsylvania sat in on the creation of the initiative over a decade ago, the state did not enter it until now. While environmental groups have expressed overwhelming support for RGGI, the initiative has significant opposition. Though Masur noted that labor unions are far from politically monolithic, most of the pushback came from building trades and mining unions, specifically AFL-CIO. In the legislature, detractors were mainly Republicans.

Routh said that these groups have filed lawsuits — both before the agreement’s publication and after — with the position that its passage would cause them irreparable harm. The lawyers at Clean Air Council (along with PennFuture, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, plus the energy company Constellation) took action to intervene in both of these lawsuits to prevent an injunction against the rule being issued. Though the Clean Air Council and other groups made the argument that the injunction would do more harm than good, the court recently ruled that their party was already adequately represented in the case. In other words, Clean Air Council’s intervention can go no further.

“Sadly, these fights are very common,” Masur said. “I think in Pennsylvania, the largest entity that’s stopping positive action to rein in climate change right now is the political power of the unions. And if it weren’t for them, [environmentalists] would pass more policy because they’re able to not only peel off some Republican votes, but they also put a lot of Democratic legislators like a deer in the headlights given the power of labor unions in the Democratic party.”

Still, he noted that labor groups are generally very cooperative when it comes to creating clean energy jobs. They tend to clash, however, on issues of regulation, especially that of fossil fuel energy.

Yet Pennsylvania’s entry into the agreement is a historic landmark for major fossil fuel-producing states, and Masur is hoping that other fossil fuel states will see Pennsylvania’s success and follow suit.

“Big picture, RGGI is the most significant step that Pennsylvania has taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its history. Perhaps that’s damning with faint praise, but it’s true,” Routh said.

PA Governor Tom Wolf addresses reporters as he and fellow lawmakers tout the benefits of entering the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Photo courtesy of the Office of Governor Tom Wolf/flickr.

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