State Needs Consensus On Climate

May 1, 2019

Gov. Tom Wolf has made Pennsylvania the 24th state to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, under which state governments attempt to achieve goals established by the Paris Accord on Climate Change — in defiance of President Donald Trump’s blunder in withdrawing from the accord.

It is the right position, even though it is clearer than the state’s air that there is no consensus within the state government to wage the fight.

Ideology energizes cross-purposes

As Wolf announced a plan to reduce statewide carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, Republican House Speaker Michael Turzai conducted another event announcing his caucus’ Energize PA plan. It is fundamentally a collection of state government tax giveaways to the gas industry.

In addition to major tax credits akin to the $1.7 billion the state has committed to build a Shell petrochemical refinery in Beaver County, the package would require the public to subsidize construction of local gas-distribution pipelines, and strip the state Department of Environmental Protection of its permitting authority over gas wells.

Turzai, citing a study funded by energy and other businesses, claimed that the package would create a $60 billion increase in state GDP and 100,000 new jobs.

Multiple contradictions

Gas is a fossil fuel. The GOP gas plan thus contradicts Wolf’s climate plan. The governor also endorsed the gas industry, but called on it — without specific regulations to make it happen — to reduce the vast amounts of methane that escape during drilling and processing. Methane is distinct from carbon and produced in smaller quantities, but it is a much more powerful agent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The plan also contradicts Wolf’s effort to impose a reasonable severance tax on gas production to fund $4.5 billion in borrowing for a major infrastructure program. Turzai’s plan bestows public subsidies on the gas industry to help it build its own infrastructure.

By supplanting coal as the state’s primary fuel for power generation, gas already has put the state well on the road to achieving the governor’s proposed carbon reduction. Wolf proposed a 26 percent carbon emission reduction by 2025 from the baseline recorded in 2005. The state’s carbon emissions declined by most of that, 23 percent, from 2005 through 2016.

Controversial, but carbon-free nukes

Meanwhile, a highly controversial matter is in play. Nuclear power provides about 20 percent of the state’s electrical generation, all of it carbon-free. Exelon has threatened early closure of its Three Mile Island nuclear plant if the state does not authorize subsidies for it in the form of required power purchases. At 805 megawatts, it is the smallest of the state’s five nuke plants, producing just over 8 percent of their combined 9,707 megawatts. But the state can’t subsidize one reactor without including the others. If one or more plants go offline, gas likely will replace the generation — increasing rather than decreasing the state’s carbon production.

The governor has not specifically endorsed any nuke bailout plan in the Legislature, but his carbon-reduction plan assumes that the current rate of nuclear power production will continue. Without it, the goals will be unreachable.

Wolf’s plan identifies many sound, proven means to reduce carbon emissions, such as promoting renewable energy production and reducing demand through better stewardship by everyone, from simply turning off lights in empty rooms and using energy-efficient appliances and more electric vehicles.

Unfortunately, like most other policy in Pennsylvania, climate change is not so much a matter of electrical power as it is political power struggles.