HB 637 in PA: Still Anti-RGGI, Still Anti-Climate

The new amendment to HB 637 is just political bait. Legislators shouldn't take it.

During the first week of April, RGGI opponents in the Pennsylvania Senate will try to override Governor Wolf's veto of S.C.R.R.R. 1, a resolution to kill the Department of Environmental Protection's proposed Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) regulation. If that attempt fails, the regulation will be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. Then the struggle over whether the Commonwealth participates in RGGI will move to the courts.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the Pennsylvania House are trying to use fossil polluters' ongoing disinformation campaign against RGGI to turn the DEP's regulation into an election issue this spring by advancing two other pieces of legislation, House Bill 637 and Senate Bill 119. These bills wouldn't just kill DEP’s RGGI regulation; they would strip the DEP of its authority to do anything to regulate dangerous carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution in the Commonwealth.

Through a recent amendment in the House Appropriations Committee, this push to eliminate the DEP's climate authority is even being promoted with the Orwellian claim that it would promote "energy sustainability and investment." Legislators shouldn't be fooled—HB 637 and SB 119 would harm Pennsylvanians by scrapping the tools the Commonwealth needs to create a truly sustainable energy economy and tackle the climate crisis.

What HB 637 and SB 119 Would Do

Basically, HB 637 and SB 119 would do three things:

  • First, they would "find" that the DEP lacks authority to regulate carbon pollution from the power sector. (The DEP currently has that authority under the state Air Pollution Control Act).
  • Second, they would prohibit the DEP from adopting any regulation concerning CO2 "unless the General Assembly specifically authorizes such a measure or action," That means the enactment of new, future legislation in addition to HB 637 or SB 119.
  • Third, the bills would establish an onerous process for the DEP to follow in developing a CO2 regulation even if the General Assembly someday authorizes such a regulation.

For more details, see my blog on HB 637 and SB 119 from last spring.

It's hard to overstate how hostile to climate action these bills are. Carbon dioxide is the largest driver of climate change, which is already causing death, displacement, and billions of dollars of damages in Pennsylvania and poses an existential threat to human life everywhere on the planet. HB 637 and SB 119 would entirely take away the DEP's power to regulate this dangerous carbon pollution.

The problem for the sponsors of HB 637 and SB 119 is that these radical bills are the opposite of what Pennsylvanians want. Polls consistently show that Pennsylvanians are worried about climate change (even as fossil fuel disinformation has left many unsure of what the facts are) and want their legislators to do something about it. The most recent Attitudinal Survey from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania also found that majorities in both rural and urban parts of the Commonwealth want the state to steer its energy economy toward renewables and away from gas—i.e., towards an energy policy that cuts health and climate pollution, rather than compounding it.

And that, perhaps, helps to explain the recent amendment to HB 637 (approved in the House Appropriations Committee on February 9 and likely to be formally added to the bill next week) that attempts to cover up HB 637’s true purpose with a fig leaf of “energy sustainability and investment.”

What the House Amendment Would Do

The amendment approved on February 9 would transfer $250 million from the state COVID-19 Response Restricted Account to the Commonwealth Financing Agency to support "energy sustainability and investment projects."  Of this sum, $125 million would be directed to select technologies to reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions in the power and industrial sectors (carbon capture, hydrogen, small modular nuclear reactors), with at least $12.5 million earmarked for plugging abandoned oil and gas wells. The other half would be split evenly between sewer, water, and stormwater projects ($62.5 million) and assistance for workers and communities affected by the closure of power plants and manufacturing plants ($62.5 million).

Directionally, these are the kinds of investments that Pennsylvanians want, and they enjoy broad support from pro-RGGI legislators, even as many legislators also recognize the need for more policy debate in some areas. For example, regarding hydrogen, there are serious questions about which kinds of niche applications make sense. (See this testimony from my colleague Rachel Fakhry for NRDC's perspective). No one thinks abandoned gas wells should go unplugged, but there’s a real question about whether plugging wells is the best and highest use of limited COVID funds at a time when the federal infrastructure law is separately providing Pennsylvania $412 million to address these same issues. 

These kinds of particulars can be debated, though. The problem is that whatever the merits of the proposed investments, the amendment tacks them on to a bill that would eliminate the DEP's ability to regulate carbon pollution, the agency's most important tool to address climate change.

Effectively, the amendment is an offer by RGGI opponents to buy the DEP's climate authority for $250 million. If you assume a social cost of carbon of $51 per ton, which the Biden administration has proposed to use, the amendment would effectively attempt to offset the damages from about 4.9 million tons of CO2. (By way of context, Pennsylvania power plants emitted about 85 million tons of CO2 in 2021). Even with the Trump administration's nothing-to-see-here $1 cost, the amendment would still pay for only 250 million tons of CO2, some three years' worth of state power sector emissions.

The DEP's Ability to Regulate Climate Change Is Worth a Lot More than $250 Million

Given that Pennsylvania's annual greenhouse emissions total around 230 million tons per year, the value of the DEP's ability to regulate climate change is worth a lot more than $250 million – not just billions, but trillions of dollars. That makes the new amendment to HB 637 a stupendously bad deal.

Happily, though, there's a much better policy that Pennsylvania can use to raise hundreds of millions of dollars every year for needed investments in decarbonization, utility bill reductions, and worker and community assistance. It's called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

At the March 2022 RGGI auction, carbon allowances sold for $13.50 per ton. Had the Commonwealth participated, it would have received around $200 million from that one quarterly auction to invest in climate and clean air solutions. Under current law, all of the DEP's RGGI investments would be directed to programs and projects that reduce air pollution, like energy efficiency, and those investments could save Pennsylvanians billions of dollars in energy costs and avoided health damages. If the General Assembly passed the RGGI Investments Act (probably the inspiration for the amendment to HB 637), the Commonwealth could also use RGGI proceeds to advance other important policy goals, like supporting workers and communities affected by coal plant closures. That's the kind of decarbonization investments legislation Pennsylvania needs. The new amendment to HB 637 is just political bait. Legislators shouldn't take it.

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