Top 3 emitter states gets in the global warming game

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Pennsylvania is the energy giant of the Northeast. It is America’s second- and third-largest producer of natural gas and coal, respectively. Only Texas and California emit more carbon dioxide among states.

The state’s robust energy industry helps explain why Pennsylvania has never joined its Northeastern counterparts in a program to reduce carbon emissions. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) ran on a pledge in 2014 to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program made up of nine Northeastern states, but never followed through. The Republicans who have controlled the state Legislature in Harrisburg throughout his tenure have never been keen on carbon cutting.

Now Wolf is showing signs of getting off the climate bench.

In December, Pennsylvania joined eight Northeastern states and the District of Columbia in announcing a plan to form a regional cap-and-trade program for the transportation sector (Climatewire, Dec. 19, 2018). Wolf followed up with an executive order aimed at trimming emissions 26 percent by 2025, and 80 percent by 2050 (Energywire, Jan. 9).

The announcements lack policy teeth. They nevertheless represent an important shift for Wolf, environmentalists say.

“The executive order is more of a signal. It’s a course correction, or announcement of course correction,” said Mark Szybist, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council who advocates for clean energy programs in Pennsylvania. “Now what’s needed is wind to fill the sails to push the ship in the direction Wolf has pointed it.”

The governor’s moves come at a critical time for Pennsylvania. The Keystone State’s emissions fell 12 percent between 2005 and 2015, according to recently released state figures. That’s due in large part to the rapid overhaul of Pennsylvania’s power sector. Emissions from the sector are down by almost a third over that period, as natural gas generation surged and electricity production from coal plunged.

But the trend may have reached its limit. Cheap natural gas prices, fueled by the drilling boom in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation, that displaced so much coal are now threatening two of the state’s nuclear plants. Three Mile Island, an 852-megawatt nuclear facility outside Harrisburg, is slated to close this fall (Energywire, Aug. 2, 2018). And FirstEnergy Solutions has taken preliminary steps to shutter its Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station along the Ohio border in 2021 (Greenwire, Aug. 15, 2018).

A recent state report concluded that keeping the two nuclear plants open beyond their retirement dates would reduce emissions by 28.9 million tons in 2025 and by nearly 40 million tons in 2050. In 2016, emissions from Pennsylvania’s power sector were roughly 85 million tons.

“Without any kind of intervention, Pennsylvania’s emissions will increase significantly,” said Christina Simeone, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. “We have had a huge reduction of emissions from coal to gas switching. If the nuclear units go offline, we’ll be going the other way. The need for regulatory solution becomes more necessary. The argument that left alone markets will reduce emissions through gas entry, for example, that argument will no longer hold.”

The issue figures to be among the most pressing challenges facing Pennsylvania legislators this year. Nuclear interest groups are hoping the state steps in to provide subsidies to keep the plants open, as happened in Illinois, New York and New Jersey. But supporters of natural gas argue that such moves distort wholesale electricity markets and leave consumers paying more for power.

Greens, for their part, are somewhat ambivalent on the matter. They like the low-carbon attributes of nuclear power but remain concerned about other environmental issues, like waste disposal.

Mostly, environmentalists are pushing Wolf to impose a declining cap on the state’s carbon emissions. In a petition filed with state regulators in November, the Clean Air Council argued that Wolf already has the regulatory power to impose a cap. Climate advocates are increasingly pushing the governor to follow in Virginia’s footsteps. There, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has circumvented opposition in the Legislature by pursuing an executive order to link up with RGGI (Climatewire, March 22, 2018).

“There is a very viable path for Gov. Wolf to lead on this if the Legislature decides not to,” said Mandy Warner, senior manager for climate and air policy at the Environmental Defense Fund.

A draft of the state’s climate action plan contemplates a carbon limit for the power sector, but the governor has so far been coy about how he intends to fulfill his climate goals.

“What I try to make sure is that what I do is not too much, but not too little,” Wolf told reporters at an event unveiling his climate pledge.

This much is clear: If the governor did decide to impose a carbon limit, Pennsylvania no longer would just be an energy giant. Given the scope of its greenhouse gas emissions, it would be a climate giant too.

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