Homer City Generating Station

A large crow flew from its perch in a tree on Penn View Mountain silhouetted against the massive Homer City Generating Station, which is several miles away.

There already has been a price paid because of Gov. Tom Wolf’s executive order placing Pennsylvania into a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative with other northeastern states, according to labor leaders addressing a Thursday conference call arranged by a coalition of labor, management and consumer stakeholders opposed to RGGI.

“We were due to have probably seven weeks of work in Homer City Power Plant this spring,” said John Hughes, business manager for the Boilermakers Local 154 in Pittsburgh. “It was put on hold because the investors don’t want to invest money into something that they’re not going to get their buck out of it later.”

Hughes also said it wasn’t known if a similar opportunity for work might happen at Homer City in the fall.

RGGI also includes Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. It aims “to cap and reduce CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions from the power sector,” with a tax recently set at $5.65 per short ton of CO2 generated from such venues as fossil-fueled power plants.

“This tax would lead to the closure of several of these power plants, resulting in the direct elimination of thousands of family-sustaining jobs and increases in the cost of electricity for all the commonwealth’s energy consumers” said Byron J. Stauffer Jr., executive director of the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development.

Pointing to power plants at Conemaugh and Homer City in Indiana County, Keystone straddling the Indiana-Armstrong county line near Shelocta, and the Cheswick plant in the Allegheny Valley northeast of Pittsburgh, Stauffer said, “Indiana County and our neighboring counties are Ground Zero for the RGGI initiative.”

Various stakeholders have joined as the Power PA Jobs Alliance, expressing concerns that RGGI is scaring away investors, could eliminate thousands of jobs and mean higher prices for electricity, consumer goods and motor fuels, and may endanger the continued existence of a local school district.

Homer-Center Business Manager Gregg Kalemba said the power plant there provided $710,000 or 12 percent of his district’s total real estate tax value last year, as well as another $30,000 in earned income tax, for $740,000 “or 5 percent of all of our revenue” last year.

 “This $750,000 reduction to the Homer-Center School District likely means the end of the Homer-Center School District because there is no way that our taxpayers are going to be able to make up the difference, a 6 or 6½ mill difference,” district Fiscal Controller David Piper said.

Another area school district would be affected by a shutdown of the Conemaugh power generating facility.

“The United School District needs to support the environment,” Superintendent Dr. Barbara L. Parkins told the conference call, “but we need to support a United community and other working Pennsylvanians as well.”

R. Michael Keith, chairman of the county’s board of commissioners, said coal and power generation has a $1.3 billion total economic impact in the county, directly affecting 1,225 jobs with $59 million in employee compensation annually, while sustaining thousands of other jobs.

That’s both the jobs nearby and those where workers might travel dozens of miles, as pointed out by Don Arena, president of the South-Central Building Trades, representing 22 affiliated building trade unions covering seven counties, including Indiana County.

He said those members service three power plants, Conemaugh, Homer City and the Seward plant, which burns coal waste.

Keith also took note of a world economy “and certainly Pennsylvania’s economy … dramatically reshaped with the ongoing COVID-19” pandemic.

“Pennsylvania now has a terrible distinction of having the highest unemployment rate in the nation,” the county board chairman said. “If Gov. Wolf insists on this executive order to push Pennsylvania into RGGI, he will hurt Indiana County even more.”

Citing one of the governor’s mantras, “jobs that pay,” Parkins said, “our power plants provide jobs that pay. Prematurely closing our power plant would not be an economically sound decision.”

Theirs was the latest call for the governor to reverse his executive order of Oct. 3, 2019.

“This governor has to listen ... and he hasn’t listened,” said state Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana. He said his House Bill 2025 and Senate Bill 950 sponsored by state Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, would require that RGGI be “vetted through the Legislature.”

HB 2025 and SB 950 also could reverse the commonwealth’s entry into RGGI, a self-proclaimed “first mandatory market-based program in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

A spokeswoman for the governor has said twice in response to Gazette inquiries, “the administration is not considering suspending the implementation of RGGI in Pennsylvania.”

“A carbon tax only generates revenue if we continue to generate carbon,” Pittman said. But if there is a reduction in carbon emissions, which is a goal of a carbon tax, Pittman said it would affect a Keystone State that now is a net exporter of electricity to the multi-state PJM grid.

“There are, I believe, 18 coal-fired power plants within PJM outside of PA, all to the west of us,” Pittman said. “They will pick up the capacity and the load. They will continue to burn coal, they will continue to emit carbon, and that will come at a price that our people will pay.”

“CO2 emissions will not change by moving them a few miles away, only our unemployment numbers,” said Shawn Steffee, a lifelong Indiana County resident who is business agent for Boilermakers Local 154 and recording secretary for the South-Central Building Trades, representing 1,500 members in 23 Pennsylvania counties, as well as two each in West Virginia and Ohio. “The last thing we need to do is self-inflict more economic distress.”

Struzzi and Parkins both called attention to a recent meeting of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Air Quality Technical Advisory Committee, which reputedly was to be a forum for RGGI but that initiative was never mentioned.

Pittman urged the governor to “work with the General Assembly and communities that depend on these coal plants.”

“They were elected just like you by the citizens of this commonwealth to represent us,” Commissioner Robin Gorman said. “Work together to better for all of us, not just some of us.”

She urged the governor to “come out into our county and look our citizens in the faces, look them in the eyes, (including) some who voted for him, and explain, when the impacts of his plan begin to take effect, and they begin to lose their jobs, is his plan going to replace them at the same rate, and supposedly spin off jobs that his plan says it will do.”

In his executive order, Wolf said, “given the urgency of the climate crisis facing Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth must take concrete, economically sound and immediate steps to reduce (greenhouse gas) emissions.”

Thursday’s conference call involved all three Indiana County commissioners.

“I am for climate change solutions and we need to invest in what is the way of the future, but I’ve not seen a proposal that invests in western Pennsylvania and is fair to Indiana County,” said Commissioner Sherene Hess, who has lived in the county for 30 years.

“The RGGI is of grave concern to us,” Hess said. “It represents a threat to our very lives.”

She said that includes “the hardworking people who have lived here for generations and built this country, through back-breaking, union-led labor.”

Arena also pointed to other union labor involved, such as from Local 59 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and to other electrical generation in nearby areas, such as the gas-fired CPV Fairview Energy Center in Jackson Township, Cambria County.

The Indiana County Boilermakers official said the 1,050-megawatt plant took 30 months to build, involving 1.75 million man-hours.

“We know eventually these coal-fired plants may retire,” Arena said. “(RGGI) is scaring off the investors who may replace these plants with something like a combined-cycle gas-fired power plant, or a modular plant that has carbon-capture added to it. The opportunities are vast, if RGGI is not in place.”

John Bland, Philadelphia-based business manager for the Boilermakers in 42 counties, talked of “quite a few plants that are being put on hold not being built, waiting on a decision on this RGGI.”

Pointing to plans for such communities as Sunbury in Northumberland County or Renovo in Clinton County, Bland said, “They’re waiting on a decision whether to build in PA or someplace else.”