Unpacking the Pennsylvania Greenhouse Gas Regulation Implementation Act: Victory for Big Coal or Much Ado About Nothing?

Harrisburg State Capital Building.jpg

On Wednesday afternoon, just a few hours before it concluded its fall session and scurried out of state capital building in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill that has since been sent to Governor Corbett. The bill, which had already passed the House, “would give either chamber of the state's General Assembly the right to veto any state plan to comply with the federal greenhouse gas rule,” one news source reported. “Gov. Tom Corbett (R) -- who has called the EPA draft a "cap-and-trade tax" -- is expected to sign it.”

So what does this all mean? Did Big Coal win big and asthmatic kids in Pennsylvania lose? Will Pennsylvanians miss out on our opportunity to save more than 330 adult lives a year by implementing power-plant carbon pollution standards? These standards also cut the smog and soot that aggravate lung and heart diseases and even cause deaths from asthma, emphysema and lung cancer. (You can add to that list: heart attacks, coronary artery disease and heart failure.) 

In Pennsylvania's state capital, Big Coal and ALEC have been trying to quash the state's ability to file an effective plan to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants. Despite a lot of recent political theater, they've walked away relatively empty-handed. (photo by David Amsler, via Creative Commons.)

That’s how it might seem. But if you actually read the bill, this is by no means a slam-dunk for polluters. In fact, it’s more like a bricked lay-up. Thanks to the first round of amendments in the House back in June, there are provisions that will allow the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to submit its plan after a potential, brief delay and a theatrical, but essentially symbolic, voting opportunity for the General Assembly. And given that the EPA can impose its own pollution-cutting plans on states that fail to come up with effective ones on their own, were these conservatives essentially handing control of the state’s utility sector over to the federal government, of all things?

Really, if all that is the best Big Coal can do in the Keystone State in 2014, there’s one takeaway: their previously white-knuckle grip on the throat of the legislature is seriously slipping, and, as a result, all of us Pennsylvanians will soon breathe easier and finally begin realizing the brighter future of a clean-energy economy.      

Just as backstory, let’s begin with a recap of events. Back in June, with only a couple of weeks left before legislators headed back to their districts for summer vacation, Representative Pam Snyder (D) introduced House Bill 2354, championed by the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, with the fingerprints of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) all over it. (You can read more here about ALEC’s insipid and coordinated attacks on climate action in state legislatures across the country.) As an aside, you may have recently seen coverage on how ALEC’s attacks on climate action have resulted in the embarrassingly public exodus of many of the group’s high-profile members, including Google and Facebook. That’s an uncomfortable place to be for a group used to operating in the shadows to undermine policies that protect public health and the environment.

But back to the matter at hand. In its original form, HB 2354 would have seriously mucked up the state’s ability to craft a smart plan for Pennsylvania to comply with EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Under that proposed federal regulation, states are given a target to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants, and then afforded an unprecedented level of flexibility to submit a State Plan to EPA on how they’ll meet that target. (More on Pennsylvania’s target and the significant clean energy options at their disposal to meet it are discussed in my previous post.) The original iteration of the Snyder bill would have required both houses of the General Assembly to approve the State Plan before the DEP could submit it to EPA. Remember: under the Clean Air Act, if states fail to submit an acceptable plan in a timely manner, EPA is required to enforce a federal backstop plan.

Luckily, thanks to the efforts of various stakeholders—including some of the very power plant companies who are going to be complying with the rule—the bill was significantly watered down. Why? Because if the state loses its authority to tailor its own plan because the legislature failed to approve it, the state gets stuck with a much less flexible federal mandate, an outcome almost no one on any side of the issue wanted. The weakened bill passed the House on July 1 and was delivered to the Senate.

Fast forward to October, when things got really interesting. With only a handful of session days left, the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee moved the watered-down version into the Appropriations Committee. There, Senator Rafferty—a Republican from the Philly suburbs—introduced amendments essentially gutting the bill entirely, thereby ensuring that Pennsylvania would have a clear path to submitting a timely State Plan. The amendment passed with bi-partisan support, including a ‘Yes’ vote from Dominic Pileggi (R)—the Senate Majority Leader himself. It appeared that cooler heads would prevail, and either no bill would be brought to the floor, or, at a minimum, a thoroughly gutted version would maybe be sent back to the House.

Well, Big Coal got angry. And over the Columbus Day weekend, between Thursday and Tuesday when the Senate returned, it went to work hard. So hard, in fact, that it pushed its friends in the Senate to threaten Pileggi with losing reelection as majority leader unless he reverted back to the previous bill. So in the dark of night last Tuesday, that’s just what happened. Pileggi flipped, providing the votes to revert back to the bill’s previous version, all so he could keep the votes he needed to stay in power. The next day, hours before they left town, that version passed.

Now, all sorts of questions are being posed in the wake of the Senate’s passage of the ironically titled “Pennsylvania Greenhouse Gas Regulation Implementation Act.” As the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out in a recent editorial, this bill may have one of the more misleading titles in a state with a long history of dubiously titled legislation. A more appropriate name would have been “An Act to Enable Desperate Political Theater and Handwringing for Climate Deniers While Doing Little to Actually Change Anything.” But I guess that doesn’t have quite the same ring.      

So, is enacting this legislation shady business? Does it run counter to the support 72 percent of Pennsylvanians voice for EPA’s proposed limits on carbon pollution from power plants? Yes, it is and it does. While the loss is something of a setback, will the legislation ultimately prevent the next governor and his DEP from crafting and submitting an effective State Plan, one that maximizes energy efficiency, renewable energy, job creation, and public-health benefits? If you read the bill, the answer is, clearly, “No.”