An Indiana Borough councilman joined other supporters of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in stressing that Gov. Tom Wolf’s effort to bring Pennsylvania into the multi-state combine could open up vast opportunities for businesses working on energy efficiency projects and clean energy solutions to drive job growth in the years to come.
“Our communities can no longer count on coal to drive the economy,” said Dr. Jonathan Warnock, an Indiana councilman and assistant professor in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Geoscience.
“We need new job sources, and our workers need training to help get them into these new jobs,” Warnock said. “We need RGGI, and we need RGGI funds to come to counties whose economies have been left behind by coal.”
Warnock spoke during a Thursday conference call held by the Clean Power PA Coalition, a grouping of clean energy, business, faith and community leaders that has stated a commitment to protecting Pennsylvania’s environment and powering its economy through clean energy.
Warnock and other speakers said Pennsylvania has an opportunity to seize on potential investments and become a leader in the clean energy economy, producing family-sustaining jobs that would be created by large companies and mom and pop businesses in every corner of the state.
Warnock reiterated a DEP estimate that RGGI would generate 27,000 jobs.
“Accessible job training programs that can help workers shift careers as the energy industry changes, shift into jobs that exist in growing markets, are vital,” the IUP faculty member said. “Focusing the money and opportunities that create those jobs in places that have lost, and continue to lose, coal jobs, like Indiana County, is necessary for the health of the commonwealth.”
Warnock also testified in favor of RGGI before the state’s Environmental Quality Board late last year, and then on Jan. 4 Borough Council President Dr. Peter Broad acknowledged during a council agenda prep session that Warnock was speaking before EQB on behalf of the borough.
The conference call followed recent votes by four Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection advisory committees endorsing a final rule that would lead to the commonwealth joining Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia in the RGGI combine on Jan. 1, 2022.
“RGGI is a regional carbon trading program that will reduce greenhouse gas pollution from power plants in Pennsylvania and in turn generate proceeds from the auction of carbon credits,” said Leann Leiter, director of policy and research for the Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance, a nonprofit corporation representing industries ranging from solar panels to the sector of heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
“Pennsylvania will bring in an estimated $300 (million) to $500 million in its first year alone,” Leiter said. “We all know that Pennsylvania has long been an energy leader and will continue to be, and RGGI is simply an opportunity to launch the next phase of that legacy.”
The conference call also followed a recent rally in Pittsburgh that brought out RGGI opponents, including lawmakers still seeking to give the General Assembly a voice in deciding whether Pennsylvania should join RGGI. Included were state Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, and other proponents of Senate Bill 119, which would authorize DEP to “submit to the General Assembly a measure or action intended to abate, control or limit carbon dioxide emissions by imposing a revenue-generating tax or fee on carbon dioxide emissions.” That bill remains in committee, as does a companion House Bill 637 whose sponsors are led by state Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana. RGGI proponents say, however, that in Indiana County RGGI investments could advance many of the goals of the county’s Sustainable Economic Development Task Force, an entity created four years ago to take advantage of what county Commissioner Sherene Hess called “a clean energy revolution ... underscored by the steady expansion of the U.S. renewable energy sector.”
In 2017, Hess said, “renewable energy and sustainable agriculture can play an important role in rural economic development.”
In 2021, however, Hess voted along with her colleagues on the county board of commissioners to oppose RGGI.
“This is a tough issue for our area and I have worked closely for climate change solutions for Pennsylvania and our nation, and I believe there are solutions out there,” Hess said in January. “But this is a blanket policy. We need to invest in solutions that work for our entire state, and this is very problematic for western Pennsylvania in terms of our economic livelihoods. What I need and want to hear from the governor is how these policies will make western Pennsylvania whole again, because this represents an enormous loss of jobs.” Hess said she supports action to address climate change but “we need to do it in ways that are fair and equitable to all parts of our state.”
Opponents believe RGGI may force the closure of power plants and other facilities, and impact real estate taxes in at least two school districts.
“That assumes coal power plants will remain open without RGGI,” Clean Power PA Coalition spokesman Charlie Lyons said. “A false assumption. As the modeling conducted for DEP shows, coal-fired production will fall to only 4 percent of overall electricity production with or without RGGI.”
He said more proper questions would be, “how can RGGI help replace revenues that will be lost inevitably? And, how will Indiana County deal with the loss of revenues when the coal-fired plants close and there are not RGGI proceeds available to tap into?”
Lyons said RGGI could be used for the kinds of initiatives that the Indiana County Sustainable Economic Development Task Force recommends: Energy efficiency and retrofitting of buildings, increased installation of renewable energy, grants for farmers for sustainable agricultural practices, and green manufacturing.
“These create local jobs that cannot be outsourced, increase business and farming efficiencies, and produce more than just a redistribution of existing revenues if invested wisely,” Lyons said. “That would be an improvement on the status quo, which is about extracting wealth from coal country and sending it elsewhere, like New York and Houston where local plant owners and operators are located. Much of the wealth created by burning coal doesn’t stay local, but RGGI can make sure that more of it does.”
The coalition spokesman went on to say state history “is replete with stories of regions and communities that took decades, if ever, to recover from the loss of their local industry — from anthracite mine closings in northeastern Pennsylvania to shuttered steel mills around the state.”
Through RGGI and other steps, Lyons said, “Pennsylvania and communities affected by the current energy market transition can plan for and support a more proactive solution rather than waiting for the inevitable to occur and be left with no resources to respond.”
Other speakers during Thursday’s conference call included state Rep. Diane Herrin, D-Chester County; Kathy Greely, senior vice president of program services for Performance Systems Development; John Augustino, energy efficiency solutions architect for Honeywell; and Dr. Joylette Portlock, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh.