Pennsylvania just reached a critical milestone on the path to a clean energy future

Somerset Wind Farm

Four of the wind turbines on the Somerset Wind Farm, in Somerset, Pennsylvania. PC: Jeff Kubina.

This week, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released its final rule to link the state with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to reduce carbon pollution from the state’s power plants starting in 2022. This is a momentous step, not only for Pennsylvania, but for the country’s fight against climate change: The Keystone state has the fourth dirtiest power sector in the nation in terms of carbon pollution. With this action, Governor Tom Wolf is showing much-needed leadership on cutting carbon pollution from the power sector, which is a critical piece of achieving the state’s climate goals along with a strong and comprehensive rule to cut methane emissions from existing sources of oil and gas infrastructure in the state.

The final rule stems from a 2019 Executive Order issued by Governor Wolf that came after years of inaction by the legislature to address the substantial air pollution coming from the state’s power sector. The next major step is for the rule to be approved by the Environmental Quality Board in the third quarter of this year and it will then move through the final steps necessary before publication in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. Despite misleading criticisms levied at the program, there is strong support in Pennsylvania for moving forward with limits on carbon, with 79% of Pennsylvanians supporting strict limits on carbon pollution.

The final rule will reduce Pennsylvania’s power sector carbon pollution by about 25%through 2030. It is a good down-payment on the progress that must be made to achieve a carbon-free power sector by 2035, but more action will be needed. This rule comes at a critical time for the power sector in Pennsylvania, with consequential decisions looming by electricity generators to shutter zero-emitting nuclear plants that could lead to significant increases in carbon pollution without a program like RGGI in place.

What’s new and noteworthy in the final rule?

DEP has reviewed thousands of public comments, heard live, virtual testimony from nearly 500 citizens, and accordingly made changes that reflect the feedback they received. The agency outlines the changes here. Importantly, DEP has done due diligence to ensure that there are no major changes in the power sector since the COVID-19 pandemic that would have implications for the ability of the electricity generators to meet the requirements of the program. The results clearly show that Pennsylvania can easily meet the emissions reductions targets under RGGI in 2022 and beyond.

A few important findings from their modeling and what we have learned in the past year:

Achieving substantial cuts in pollution. DEP’s updated modeling shows 100-225 million tons of carbon pollution are cut over the life of the program. This is a substantial amount of pollution and equivalent to taking roughly 20-44 million passenger vehicles off the road for a year. Additionally, as has been seen with other states, reducing carbon pollution also reduces harmful air pollutants that contribute to soot and smog, which can cause asthma attacks, heart attacks, and missed work and school days – meaning cleaner air for Pennsylvanians to breathe.

Designed to advance environmental justice. DEP’s final rule takes steps that recognize the imperative to protect and benefit Environmental Justice communities as RGGI is implemented. DEP’s rule includes a requirement for an annual air quality assessment to help ensure that as air pollution declines statewide, communities that historically have been disproportionately impacted by local air pollution are also seeing emissions decline in their communities. Additionally, DEP has developed RGGI Equity Principles to help guide the program and investment strategy. The principles include:

  • “Inclusively gathering and considering input from the public related to decisions made under RGGI.
  • Protecting public health and welfare, mitigating any adverse impacts on human health, especially in EJ communities.
  • Working equitably and with intentional consideration to distribute environmental and economic benefits of the proceeds of allowance auctions.”

While it will be critical that DEP focuses sharply on delivering on these principles during program implementation, this is an important first step towards standing up a program that delivers benefits to Pennsylvanians who have historically borne the burden of local air pollution and are most at risk from the intensifying climate impacts.

Generating economic benefits. RGGI investments can lead to lower customer bills because of strategic investments in energy efficiency (and customer bill rebates have also been used by in some RGGI states). In other RGGI states, we have seen modeling that shows even as emissions go down another 30%, the average residential electricity bill in those RGGI states will be 35% lower in 2031 than it was in 2017. Pennsylvania can replicate this success by deploying proceeds in cost-saving energy efficiency to benefit consumers. DEP’s modeling from last year also found that RGGI could increase the Gross State Product by nearly $2 billion and provide for over 27,000 jobs in Pennsylvania by 2030. Additionally, Pennsylvania’s role as a net energy exporter will continue even as RGGI comes into effect.

The final rule on RGGI is a critical climate milestone, as it provides important reductions in pollution that will help ensure Pennsylvania can meet its climate goals, and it meets the demands of the vast majority of Pennsylvanians that want their leaders to act on climate. This final rule also solidifies that RGGI is the right move for Pennsylvania’s economy and public health — by deploying investments that reduce pollution in overburdened communities, spurring investment to create jobs, and preparing Pennsylvania to be a leader in the clean energy future. It’s the right course of action and one that we cannot afford to delay.

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