The Most Polluting State in the Northeast Just Took a Key Step Toward Curbing Its Dirty Ways

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Thursday was a momentous day for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a carbon market that governs power plant emissions in nine states. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed an executive order entering the state into the agreement.

In doing so, he immediately doubled the amount of carbon emissions regulated under the agreement. The order will still have to go through the state’s rule-making process, and it won’t have a direct impact on the state’s fracking boom, a major source of emissions being exported to other states and the world. But it’s nonetheless an interesting development in a state long associated with coal that’s also recently helped drive the natural gas boom.

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RGGI has been around for a decade as the first U.S. carbon market. The idea behind it is that states that are part of the market set a cap on power plant carbon pollution and then let companies trade allowances under that cap, essentially putting a price on carbon. The amount of allowed carbon pollution drops over time, forcing power companies to either pay for more pollution permits or invest in lower-emissions technologies.

Pennsylvania adds some major oomph to the agreement, which has included states with fairly robust economies like New York and Massachusetts but lower carbon emissions. Pennsylvania gets more than half of its electricity through coal and gas generation, with most of the natural gas plants coming online in recent years.

“Gas has been so cheap, it pushed coal almost out of the power sector,” Mark Szybist, a senior attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council, told Earther about the state’s energy mix.

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Szybist added that the state is at an inflection point as it prepares to enter RGGI. Natural gas has already helped the state cut its carbon pollution because it burns cleaner than coal. But, he added, natural gas is “starting to replace nuclear power,” which is carbon-free.

The state could keep also cutting its coal usage and likely meet its RGGI requirements. That’s why Szybist said joining the agreement isn’t enough to ensure Pennsylvania actualizes real, deep carbon cuts. He pointed to the need for renewable portfolio standards—rules that dictate a state has to get a certain amount of power from renewables by a certain year—as well as energy efficiency improvements as ways to make the carbon cuts for real. Renewable portfolio standards in particular have proven to be wildly successful, and Pennsylvania has some room for improvement. Food and Water Watch said it would give the state an F for what it currently has in place, partly because the state counts dirty forms of energy, such as wood burning, as renewable.

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One other major gap is that RGGI only covers power plant emissions. Which, sure, those need to be drawn down. But Pennsylvania has also been Boomtown USA when it comes to fracking. Power plant greenhouse gas emissions accounted for just 30 percent of all state emissions in 2015, according to state data. That same year, energy production outpaced electricity emissions for the first time, and it could keep growing as long as the fracking boom continues.

Another concern is whether executive action alone is enough to ensure the state can join RGGI. New Jersey left the agreement under Chris Christie’s leadership, only to announce it was re-entering the agreement under recently elected Democrat Phil Murphy. Virginia planned to do the same under Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, but his effort was shutdown by the Republican-controlled state house earlier this year (the irony being that RGGI is the type of market mechanism conservatives used to love).

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Republicans in the Pennsylvania statehouse could stop Wolf’s attempt to join the agreement. But Szybist said he felt confident discussions about the agreement between the governor and legislature that began before Wolf signed the executive order would continue.

“As this process moves forward, the legislature will further understand what RGGI is,” he said. “And we’ll have at least one election between now and the time the rule is finished.”

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