With one Democrat breaking ranks over his differences with Gov. Tom Wolf over a local issue, the state Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee otherwise voted along party lines Thursday to move to the Senate floor bills proposed by state Sen. Joe Pittman and Rep. Jim Struzzi, both R-Indiana, to deal with the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI.
The committee cast 8-3 votes on Pittman’s Senate Bill 950 and Struzzi’s House Bill 2025, both of which are proposed as the “Pennsylvania Carbon Dioxide Cap and Trade Authorization Act.” Either would authorize the General Assembly, “working together with the Department of Environmental Protection, the Environmental Quality Board, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and other important stakeholders, to determine whether and how to regulate or impose a tax on carbon dioxide emissions.”
“It does not prohibit the commonwealth from entering RGGI,” said Pittman, vice chairman of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. Rather, he said, the bills are meant to give “a voice to the voiceless” that would be impacted by a carbon tax to be imposed on the production of electricity, such as that generated by power plants in and around Indiana County.
“I understand where Sen. Pittman is coming from,” said Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester County, who long has been fighting matters related to the Mariner East pipeline, and a perceived lack of interest from the Wolf administration and the DEP. “I’ve been through it for four years, waiting for that kind of assistance.”
The pipeline is a “number-one issue” in his district and the neighboring district of Sen. Thomas Killion, R-Chester County, Dinniman told his colleagues on the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. He said his vote was “a protest of the failure of the governor’s office (and) the DEP to really involve the people in a dialogue” regarding the pipeline.
“It is not accurate that the people do not have a voice in this process,” said committee Minority Chairman Sen. Steven Santarsiero, D-Bucks County. “The (Air) Pollution Control Act (of 1960) did in fact give the governor the authority to pursue this regulatory process.” He said the General Assembly passed that act, adding, “the governor is elected by all the people of Pennsylvania. It is not accurate that the people do not have voice in this process.”
Committee Majority Chairman Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, voted in favor of the two bills, as did Pittman, Dinniman and Sens. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington County; Scott Hutchinson, R-Venango County; Scott Martin, R-Lancaster County; and John Yudichak of Luzerne County, a former Democrat who became an independent in November.
Santarsiero was joined in voting no on the two bills by Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County.
Two senators voted by proxy. Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph B. Scarnati III, R-Brockway, voted yes, while Sen. Anthony H. Williams, D-Philadelphia, voted no.
Pittman said supporters of his bill and the one proposed by Struzzi, including various labor unions, “want a voice in the process. The governor has not given us a voice.” He said Struzzi’s bill “was passed by the House with a large bipartisan vote.”
It was not a veto-proof vote, and Wolf’s office has said the governor has pledged to veto Struzzi’s bill.
“I appreciate working with Jim Struzzi on this. It is great that the committee moved both of our bills today,” Pittman said after the vote. “Entering RGGI is a decision of enormous consequence to every Pennsylvanian. RGGI paves the way for a tax to be placed on the emissions of carbon — the very gas we all exhale — from electric generation plants here in the commonwealth.”
Eleven months ago, the governor directed the DEP to join RGGI, a collaboration so far of nine Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont set a cap on total carbon dioxide emissions from electric power generators in their states. To comply, power plants must purchase a credit or “allowance” for each ton of CO2 they emit.
Virginia also is prepared to join RGGI, effective Jan. 1, 2021. Pennsylvania’s timetable sets Keystone State entry for Jan. 1, 2022.
At a virtual seminar last month, DEP officials reiterated that “there certainly is a special focus on Indiana County” as part of the state’s RGGI plan.
Hayley Book, DEP’s senior adviser on energy and climate and the agency’s project manager for developing a RGGI rulemaking, said her agency has been having conversations with energy stakeholders, in counties such as Indiana, regarding coal-fired plants as well as waste coal-fired power plants.
Shortly after the committee vote, the Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania Clean Energy program director, Tom Schuster, said it seemed the Legislature doesn’t care “about stabilizing the climate or protecting their constituents from the harm pollution can cause to their communities now and in the future.”
The Sierra Club quoted a Global Strategy Group poll that claimed 73 percent support across the state for RGGI. The poll was funded by Climate Power 2020, an independent project of the Center for American Progress, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club.
Schuster called SB950 and HB2025 a reflection of “dangerous, wishful thinking by legislators who think they can forestall necessary and ultimately inevitable changes to how we power our state.”
Echoing DEP, Schuster said RGGI would create thousands of local jobs.
“This vote is completely out of step with the will of a strong majority of Pennsylvanians who support decisive action to protect the climate on which our entire economy depends,” Schuster said.