Clairton Coke Works. Courtesy of The Breathe Project. Photo by Mark Dixon/ Blue Lens.

Last Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf issued an executive order to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, instructing the organization to create a framework for entering the multi-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative no later than July 31, 2020.

The order set off a fierce debate over environmental policy and the powers of the governor. Here’s what that debate is all about:

What is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)?

The RGGI is a regional cap and trade program that includes Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. New Jersey, which had previously been a member but withdrew under Gov. Chris Christie, is scheduled to rejoin later this year. Governors in those states signed an agreement in 2005 and the emissions cap took effect in 2009.

It works like this: For every ton of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, polluting companies in each state must purchase credits at quarterly auctions held by the RGGI. By limiting the number of credits, the market incentivizes polluters to embrace alternative energy sources. Because if they pollute beyond the cap, these companies face fines.

The proceeds from the sales are then dispersed back to the participating states, which have collectively decreased their CO2 emissions by 45 percent since 2005.

Wolf’s executive order is a step toward Pennsylvania joining the initiative.

“This initiative represents a unique opportunity for Pennsylvania to become a leader in combatting climate change and grow our economy by partnering with neighboring states,” said Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “As a major electricity producer, Pennsylvania has a significant opportunity to reduce emissions and demonstrate its commitment to addressing climate change through a program with a proven track record.”

What’s the response so far?

Democratic politicians and environmental advocacy groups cheered the move, with PennFuture President and CEO Jacquelyn Bonomo calling it “the most significant step Pennsylvania has taken to cut its fair share of carbon pollution.”

Several politicians also noted the potential for spurring innovation and creating new jobs.

“In recent years, Pennsylvania has been seriously outpaced by stronger energy standards in neighboring states,” said Rep. Steve McCarter (D-Montgomery County), a member of the state’s climate caucus.

But Republican leaders in the General Assembly were quick to denounce the move, arguing that Wolf had exceeded the authority of his office.

“Gov. Wolf clearly does not have the authority to take this reckless action, which will cost average Pennsylvanians more of their hard-earned money through their energy bills, without legislative approval,” said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County), chair of the Environmental Resources & Energy Committee. “As Majority Chairman, I will continue my fight to hold the Wolf administration accountable by ensuring that state regulations encourage, not discourage, job-creating energy producers, while protecting the health, wealth and safety of all Pennsylvanians.”

What happens next?

Though Wolf defended his authority to issue the order unilaterally last week, he did emphasize that the General Assembly would play a role in shaping the eventual legislation.

“The conversation we’ve begun over the past year needs to continue if we are going to craft regulations that fit Pennsylvania’s unique energy mix, while making sure that the transition to a cleaner energy mix doesn’t leave behind workers and communities our state has relied on for decades to produce its power,” said Wolf. “And it will take buy-in from the legislature to ensure we’re protecting Pennsylvanians from the increasing effects of the climate crisis.”

Stay tuned to NEXTpittsburgh for more updates.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.