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Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf's proposed carbon-pricing plan encounters new legal hurdles

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration wants the centerpiece of the Democrat's plan to fight climate change to take effect immediately, but it is being held up in a growing legal dispute by an agency that answers to the Republican-controlled Legislature.

On Friday, Wolf's secretary of environmental protection, Patrick McDonnell, wrote to the Legislative Reference Bureau to insist that it publish Wolf’s regulation to impose a price on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants.

Publishing it in the Pennsylvania Bulletin would mean the regulation takes immediate effect, and would make Pennsylvania the first major fossil fuel state to adopt a carbon pricing policy. The bulletin is published weekly as an official record of actions by government agencies.

However, Republicans who control the Legislature oppose the regulation and argue that they have more time, months even, to take votes on it. McDonnell wrote that the legislative review period has expired and that Republicans' interpretation of the law is wrong.

“It is a violation of the separation of powers doctrine, unnecessarily impeding the executive branch’s ability to execute its rulemaking authority,” McDonnell wrote.

House and Senate leaders, however, did not back down Monday from their interpretation of the law and its timeline.

Lawmakers ultimately cannot block the regulation unless they are able to muster a two-thirds majority, which they have been unable to do.

The plan has won approval from regulatory bodies and signoff by the governor's office of general counsel and the attorney general's office under reviews for form and legality. It still could face a legal challenge in the courts from opponents, who contend that it is an illegal use of regulatory authority.

The regulation allows Pennsylvania to join a multistate consortium, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which sets a price and declining limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Under the cap-and-trade program, dozens of power plants fueled by coal, oil and natural gas would be forced to buy hundreds of millions of dollars in credits in the coming years that the state could then spend on clean energy efforts.

Wolf’s administration has said the policy will deliver significant improvements to the state’s environment, public health and economy.

Wolf’s administration had initially sought support in the Republican-controlled Legislature and, failing to get traction there, pursued the matter through regulation.

Opponents have included coal- and natural gas-related interests who would pay more to operate, industrial and business groups that fear higher electricity bills and labor unions whose workers maintain power plants, build gas pipelines and mine coal, fearing a loss of jobs.

Republicans contend the regulation broadly will make energy more expensive.

A House Republican spokesperson said the administration is trying to “inappropriately further their radical agenda of making it less affordable for Pennsylvanians to heat their homes and put gas in their cars and permanently ending blue collar energy sector jobs.”

The Wolf administration, however, said its modeling shows that prices will rise initially by 1%, but then drop to lower than “business as usual” prices by 2030, delivering savings to electricity users.

Its effectiveness could depend on where emissions caps are set and whether money from the emissions credits are wisely spent on clean energy and energy efficiency programs.

The plan has support from environmental advocacy groups, backers of higher-efficiency natural gas plants and labor unions involved in renewable energy projects.

In theory, electricity from solar, wind and nuclear power generators would become more cost competitive in electricity markets, and the hope for better prices motivated the Ohio-based owner of the nuclear-powered Beaver Valley Power Station to put off plans to close the plant.