Pennsylvania Carbon Pricing Bills Slated for Introduction

After a petition to study cap-and-invest was accepted by Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board (EQB) in mid-April, advocates wondered if legislators would capitalize on the state’s newfound momentum for carbon pricing and introduce bills of their own.  

It now looks like that’s exactly what will happen. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D) and Representative Christopher Rabb (D) each issued co-sponsorship memos regarding their proposed carbon pricing legislation, indicating that bills will soon be released.

Costa’s bill links Pennsylvania to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-invest program regulating the electric sector emissions of nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, while Rabb’s imposes a direct, per-ton fee on carbon pollution.  

Remind me — what’s this petition about again?

The cap-and-invest petition is important to understand because it has helped elevate carbon pricing to the forefront of the climate conversation in Pennsylvania.

The 407-page document, submitted in November by the Clean Air Council, a nonprofit air quality organization, calls for an economy-wide cap-and-invest program on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It has the tentative support of Gov. Tom Wolf (D), and is backed by more than 200 co-petitioners, including environmental organizations, academics, businesses, faith groups, and municipalities.

The petition outlines a cap-and-invest program that is similar to California’s, setting a gradually-declining cap on emissions and selling allowances to regulated entities via quarterly auctions. It didn’t come out of thin air;  it’s rooted in Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment of 1971, which guarantees clean air, water, and natural resources to all Pennsylvanians. Read more about the petition and its legal basis here.

Since the EQB voted in the petition’s favor by a 14-5 margin in mid-April, it is currently undergoing review by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Regardless of what ultimately comes from this petition, it will be perceived as a success in some ways. The process has successfully drawn media coverage and helped mobilize a diverse range of groups to think about how carbon pricing can work in a high emissions state like Pennsylvania. Whether or not the petition directly results in a cap-and-invest program remains to be seen; we’ll find out how the DEP recommends the EQB proceed on June 18th, at the board’s next meeting.

Could Pennsylvania Join RGGI?

While carbon pricing advocates eagerly await to hear how the DEP plans to proceed, lawmakers have released their own proposals.

On June 6th, Senator Costa distributed a memo seeking cosponsors for a bill to establish an electric sector cap-and-invest program that will ultimately link Pennsylvania to RGGI.

The bill will instruct the EQB to reduce electric sector emissions by at least 90% by 2040. Revenue generated from the program will be invested in a host of initiatives, including clean air, protection for low-income communities, energy efficiency, workforce training, and economic development.

“Pennsylvania has already made important strides towards reducing greenhouse gases, and mayors from Pennsylvania’s two largest cities have already committed to reducing carbon emissions,” said Costa in a press release, adding, “but more work is needed to achieve the emission reductions and to make sure Pennsylvania isn’t left behind in the burgeoning growth of clean energy technologies and jobs.”

If Pennsylvania does join RGGI, the program will become a lot more consequential, more than doubling the amount of carbon emissions that it regulates. In 2017, Pennsylvania’s electric sector was responsible for 78 million tons of carbon, while the nine current RGGI state’s collective emissions were 58.9 million tons. Furthermore, RGGI would be a tremendous revenue source for Pennsylvania. It will be critical to ensure the cap remains stringent with Pennsylvania’s inclusion in the program.

What about imposing a direct fee on carbon pollution?  

Just one day after Costa’s announcement, Rep. Chris Rabb asked House members to co-sponsor his own carbon pricing bill, which establishes a direct, per-ton fee on GHG emissions in the state. In the memo, he stressed the importance of cooperation on an issue as existential as climate change.

“This is not a partisan issue. It’s not even a bipartisan issue,” Rabb wrote. “It’s a nonpartisan issue. We are all inhabitants of this planet and we are all in this together.”

Rabb told Climate XChange he’s chosen to introduce his own legislation despite rising momentum for cap-and-invest, because he believes that emission trading programs hurt the most vulnerable communities.

“Cap-and-invest initiatives often are implemented to the great detriment of frontline communities, where disproportionately higher environmental degradation occurs,” Rabb said. He will support the state joining RGGI, however, provided that there are social equity provisions baked into the proposal.

Rabb said he will formally introduce his bill by September, after securing both Democratic and Republican co-sponsors and receiving input from a range of stakeholders.

What’s next?

Next week, the DEP will announce their highly-awaited recommendations for the cap-and-invest petition. However, regardless of the outcome of that meeting, what happens in the legislature remains critical since many GOP lawmakers have maintained that creating a cap-and-invest program solely through executive means is unconstitutional.

Pushing forward carbon pricing legislation through a majority-Republican House (109-93) and Senate (26-22) will be difficult, but in the wake of an unprecedented climate crisis, it’s a necessary step for the state.