A state judge has entered an injunction that will block Gov. Tom Wolf’s second-term crusade to ramp up Pennsylvania’s role in the worldwide struggle against climate change.
Commonwealth Court Judge Michael Wojcik’s ruling prevents, for now, the state from entering the multi-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The policy was to take effect this month.
Environmental groups decried the ruling, and Gov. Wolf’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Rementer, said the Department of Environmental Protection will appeal Wojcik’s decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
“While only temporary, the court’s decision is yet another roadblock and stalling tactic from RGGI opponents,” said Jessica O’Neill, lead attorney for PennFuture, Clean Air Council, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council. “The impact that RGGI will have on the health, safety and welfare of our members, our climate and our environment cannot be overstated. Simply put, RGGI will save lives, create jobs and lower Pennsylvania’s carbon footprint at a time when we need it most.
Goal opponents applauded the court’s decision:
“The court made the right choice today in pausing implementation of RGGI,” said Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, “and I am optimistic that we will succeed on the merits of the case. We need to pursue climate solutions that encourage collaboration with our energy sector, not regressive and unconstitutional taxes meant to destroy it and leave us relying on foreign oil and gas for decades to come.”
Wolf’s goal has been to get Pennsylvania into the regional system, commonly referred to as RGGI, before he leaves office in January, thereby helping to address what he sees as an existential threat to life as we know it in the Keystone State.
The initiative is a confederation of 11 states that have agreed to play by the same marketplace rules to create a cap-and-trade program where energy companies essentially pay for the continued emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from their power plants.
RGGI member states do that through a system of allowances, or credits, that are allocated based on baseline pollution levels, and then set to steadily decline over time. The credits are sold at quarterly auctions, giving energy generators the choice of either paying more for a shrinking supply of allowances, or taking other steps to reduce their emissions to so that they don’t have to buy as many in the first place.
Proceeds from the sales of the allowances come to the states, which can use them to promote clean energy and energy efficiency projects and, in at least one case, offset any related increase in consumer’s electricity bills.
In Pennsylvania, the Legislature’s Republican majorities and coal producers have strenuously battled Wolf’s plan, arguing that the price of the credits is in actuality a tax because it will raise end-of-line electricity costs, which the state’s Constitution says can only be levied with legislative approval. It also amounts to an agreement with other states.
“These kinds of course-setting decisions are reserved for the Legislature,” the state Senate’s attorneys argued this spring, calling for the administration’s push to be halted.
And in Pennsylvania, it is also clear, the plan will not pass the Republican-led House and Senate at this time.
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Wolf’s Department of Environmental Protection had countered in court that the governor’s authority flowed directly from the state’s Air Pollution Control Act, which allows DEP the power to regulate air pollution, and that includes carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.
One attorney for the state, in this spring’s argument over whether the court should stay Pennsylvania’s entry into RGGI this summer while the case in chief is heard, likened the payments for emissions to driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike: “You’ve got to pay the toll.”
Power PA Jobs Alliance, representing many of the unions and business groups that asked the court for the injunction, praised the judge’s decision Friday, noting that Wojcik had concluded the legal challenge brought by labor leaders and industry was likely to succeed.
“This is a significant win for Pennsylvania families and employers, and paves the way for the courts to reject this unconstitutional and illegal regulatory tax that was targeting both Pennsylvania’s own energy resources and consumers pocketbooks,” the organization said.
“This delay is an important, much-needed step for Pennsylvania residents and businesses,” added Pennsylvania Chamber President and CEO Luke Bernstein.
“We appreciate the Court pressing pause on this policy, which threatens to significantly increase energy prices at a time of high inflation, while also pushing more economic activity to states on our grid who are not in RGGI. Businesses and families are already facing high energy prices due to a lack of supply and infrastructure, and this is an opportunity for policymakers to embrace abundant domestic energy production, facilitate building new infrastructure, support competitive markets, and set long-term policies that encourage innovation .”
Wojcik’s order will keep the plan on the shelf likely through the remainder of Wolf’s second term, and could kill it for the foreseeable future.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin County and the Republican candidate to succeed the term-limited Wolf, is running on a platform that calls for full-scale development and sales of Pennsylvania’s fossil fuels, and has vowed to pull Pennsylvania from RGGI on Day One if he is elected. He has also called the international consensus that climate change is a threat that will drastically disrupt the world’s economy “fake science.”
Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state’s sitting Attorney General, has said he supports an “all-of-the-above” energy policy but he has thus far declined to commit to keeping or placing Pennsylvania in RGGI.
“We need to take real action to address climate change, protect and create energy jobs, and ensure Pennsylvania has reliable, affordable, and clean power for the long term,” Shapiro told PennLive in June.
“As Governor, I will implement an energy strategy which passes that test, and it’s not clear to me that RGGI does. Ultimately, that is a determination I will make as Governor, in close consultation with workers and affected communities. I refuse to accept the false choice between protecting jobs or protecting our planet – we must do both and my priority will be ensuring Pennsylvania has a comprehensive climate and energy policy that will move all of us forward.”