By David Loomis
INDIANA –The pandemic is easing. The economy is recovering. Hope is renewing. And President Joe Biden is visiting the commonwealth this week to remind voters who to thank for the good news.
Unity is lacking, however. Every single Republican in Congress – including Indiana County’s Republican U.S. Rep. Glenn W. Thompson Jr. — voted against the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 stimulus bill Biden signed into law on Thursday. (A “monstrosity,” according to U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.) Partisan disunity is nothing new in Washington.
Or in Harrisburg.
Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania General Assembly willingly join the fire brigade passing buckets of desperately needed federal relief funds to renew public health and restore economic vitality. But state lawmakers can’t – or won’t – compromise on climate, the other existential crisis that threatens national security, public health and the economy.
In October 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered Pennsylvania — the nation’s fourth-largest emitter of climate-crashing greenhouse gases – to join the market-based, 11-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. He cited his authority under the state’s Air Pollution Control Act of 1960 and the federal Clean Air Act of 1963, which requires states to meet U.S. air-quality standards. The governor hopes to activate the commonwealth’s membership in RGGI’s Republican-inspired cap-and-trade market mechanism by early next year.
RGGI (pronounced “Reggie”) targets electricity-generating plants, the source of 27 percent of all U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. (Only the U.S. transportation sector – at 28 percent — emits more greenhouse gases.) Pennsylvania has 16 coal-fired power plants – two in Indiana County.
RGGI supporters and opponents agree: Market trends, not government mandates, have determined the decline of coal, including its combustion in electric-power generation. Despite Donald Trump’s broken promise to bring back the coal industry, more than 60 coal-burning power plants closed during his failed fossil-fuel-friendly term.
In Pennsylvania, where fossil-fuel subsidies are generous and social costs onerous, coal is producing about 17 percent of the commonwealth’s electricity, down from nearly 50 percent in 2010. Even without RGGI, the state Department of Environmental Protection estimates the combustible black rock will generate only 3 percent of the state’s electricity by 2030.
Cheaper natural gas and increasingly cheaper renewable energy from wind and solar have contributed to the decommissioning of at least 16 coal-fired plants statewide since 1996. Locally, three coal-fired plants – two in Southern Indiana County and a third right next door in Armstrong County – face the same fate.
COAL-HUGGERS ask, why the rush? If coal-burning power plants are going to close anyway, why not let them die a natural death?
For that slow-death wish, Indiana County’s Republican state legislative delegation – Rep. Jim Struzzi and Sen. Joe Pittman — are leading an effort to derail RGGI. They accuse the governor of having it in for local coal-industry families and their communities.
Mr. Struzzi, for example, says “coal remains king” here, with ample evidence. Before the pandemic, Pennsylvania ranked as the nation’s third-largest coal producer. RGGI, he warns, is regicide that will cause “the direct elimination of thousands of family-sustaining jobs” and “the loss of millions in local and state tax revenues” if power plants close in his district.
[Numbers vary. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports direct employment of 290 “power plant operators” in the “Western Pennsylvania nonmetropolitan area” in May 2019. The group includes workers who “control, operate, or maintain machinery to generate electric power,” not including nuclear power.]
Mr. Pittman, whose Senate district boasts the three coal-fired power plants, plus a waste-coal-burning plant and a natural gas plant, adds that the governor “has unfortunately chosen to disregard these fine men and women, and their families” and that the senator will “advocate for policies that ensure the future of these important electric plants.”
Lawmaker support for private-industry trade-union jobs is smart constituent service. Alas, economic decline is a sadly familiar refrain in boom-bust Indiana County, where unionized private industry has come and gone. (Meanwhile, public-sector union jobs hemorrhaging at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the county’s largest employer, don’t seem to merit the same measure of legislative concern.)
LAWMAKERS ALSO ARGUE that the Democratic governor has failed to ask their permission to join RGGI. That strategy failed during last year’s Covid-19 crisis: Supreme courts of Pennsylvania and the United States sided with the governor on his exercise of emergency pandemic-mitigation powers. So did a majority of Pennsylvania voters.
Voters also support the governor’s climate-crisis policies. In September, two-thirds of voters statewide said they supported imposing strict limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. In Indiana County, a harder sell, 50 percent of voters said they supported such limits, up from 48 percent in 2016.
The regard for voters represented by Mr. Struzzi and Mr. Pittman was sadly demonstrated during post-election debate over Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes. And they recently renewed their legislative effort to derail RGGI. If the legislation passes, the governor is likely to veto it again, for the same reasons –- that it would be “extremely harmful to public health and welfare” and it would “effectively deny that climate change is an urgent problem that demands prudent solutions.”
THE IMPASSE looks like lawmakers could head for court to argue that the state Department of Environmental Protection lacks authority over greenhouse gas emissions (even as lawmakers work to strip the agency of its supposedly non-existent authority). But lawmakers should consider compromise, which also would grant their wish to engage with the governor.
For workers, Rep. Struzzi and Sen. Pittman argue that RGGI economics are a zero-sum game in which coal-fired power-plant employees could lose their jobs and no one would gain. RGGI supporters see a win-win — a net gain of 27,000 jobs by 2030, according to a July 2020 state Department of Environmental Protection analysis. Moreover, RGGI would generate revenue to help displaced workers into jobs with a future. Legislators, if they were willing, would have a constructive role in distributing those revenues.
Revenues could be considerable. For example, Virginia, RGGI’s newest member state, on March 5 netted more than $43 million from its first carbon-allowance auction since joining RGGI last year. The Old Dominion could gain $174 million from all four auctions scheduled this year. The Democratic legislature directed the money to low-income energy-efficiency programs and to the coastal state’s recurrent sea-level-rise problems.
Member state Massachusetts created a task force on its coal-fired plants’ closures and directed revenues to communities coping with the loss. Other RGGI members have invested in energy efficiency, clean and renewable energy, greenhouse gas abatement and direct utility-bill assistance.
How much could RGGI generate for Pennsylvania? One study estimated revenues of up to $6.6 billion from auction proceeds between 2020 and 2030. [By comparison, the commonwealth’s current fiscal-year budget enacted in November spends $32.1 billion in state funds and $3.4 billion in federal stimulus funds.)
If Pennsylvania joins RGGI through administrative regulation, and not through legislative action, then RGGI revenues will go to the state’s Clean Air Fund, which can be used only to help reduce air pollution. That’s a good goal. But the money cannot be used to retrain or relieve workers who lose their jobs and struggle to find new ones. Nor can it be used to mitigate climate impacts on, say, farmers. Nor can it be used to bolster economic development. Nor can it be used to juice the commonwealth’s flagging innovation. Unless the legislature legislates.
THE RGGI DEBATE is overshadowed by a deeper dimension. It was raised last year by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary under President George W. Bush. Ridge wrote that his Republican Party has a big problem with the environment. Climate change represents a “threat multiplier,” that presents the party with a “moral imperative” to act.
“We have a responsibility to future generations,” Ridge wrote. “Shame on us if we don’t accept it.”
The message may be getting through. Last month, Rep. Struzzi at least pondered the possibility of Pennsylvania’s full participation in RGGI.
“If we have no choice but to move forward with RGGI, I will do all I can to ensure that Indiana County is positioned to benefit from those funds,” Mr. Struzzi said.
Another hopeful sign of the season?
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email email@example.com or click on the “contact us” drop-down menu, above.