Three Mile Island

The four cooling towers from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant dominate the landscape in this file photo from March 2019.

A bipartisan group of legislators are vowing to keep up the fight against Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to tax Pennsylvania’s carbon emissions despite their inability to shut the governor down through a vote earlier this summer.

The Democratic governor’s proposal to join a multi-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative would cap and tax emissions and invest that revenue back into energy-efficiency programs and renewable energy.

The plan has met fierce resistance at the Capitol from most Republicans and a minority of Democrats concerned about the potential loss of coal and natural gas jobs. Together they recently tried to remove Wolf’s sole authority to enact the regulation, passing a bill in the House but falling short of the votes needed to override Wolf’s promised veto.

But with several steps and another two years left in the regulatory process, the fight has potentially only just begun.

“The Legislature is trying to put its stamp on this to make sure that, constitutionally at any rate, that they’re involved in this process,” said longtime Pennsylvania political observer G. Terry Madonna.

Lawmakers’ first attempt at trying to make their mark came in the form of a 130-71 vote in the Republican-controlled House to ensure Wolf would have to go through them to bring the climate change plan to fruition. Falling six votes short of a veto-proof supermajority, they’re now looking to the next stages.

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the Republican chair of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, kicked off that effort with a hearing in mid-July solely with testimony against entering the initiative. The ranking Democratic chair, Rep. Greg Vitali, called it a “dog and pony show.”

Metcalfe said he plans to hold another hearing before a crucial vote by the Environmental Quality Board in September that would advance DEP’s plan.

A spokesman for Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, the chair of the same committee in the Senate, also told The Caucus he is planning to hold “a series of hearings on RGGI prior to any vote on legislation.” Yaw’s committee already held one hearing on the initiative in June.

Yaw is most concerned about the impacts on the energy industry and the effects to electricity rates for ratepayers, said spokesman Nick Troutman.

“For a step of this magnitude, which affects consumers, business, industry and public policy — the legislature, who represents the citizens of this state, must be involved in the dialogue on joining RGGI,” Troutman said. “It cannot be a unilateral decision. Our goal, and ultimate objective with the Senate committee hearings, is to properly vet this issue and the impacts.”

To make any changes to or kill Wolf’s plans, the legislators would need to pass “disapproval resolutions” with veto-proof margins once the regulation makes its way to those House and Senate committees, Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Neil Shader said.

The official regulation is still being drafted by the DEP, and it must first be approved by the Environmental Quality Board and reviewed by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. At the earliest, Pennsylvania wouldn’t formally enter the multi-state agreement until 2022.

Mixed opposition

The recent House vote put on display a rare moment of opposition to Wolf’s actions from some of his fellow Democrats in the General Assembly, evidence of the state’s diverse energy interests, and where Republicans will need to drum up more votes to impact the next steps.

“The end game: they hate coal,” said Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Allegheny. “Well, you know what then, get rid of your car, and ride a horse to Harrisburg because you can’t build roads or bridges either.”

Kortz, a veteran of the steel industry who worked for United States Steel Corp. for three decades, also disagreed with Wolf’s approach to implement regulations without legislative approval.

“There needs to be a check and balance. We live in a democracy, not a dictatorship,” Kortz said. “They are so gung-ho; they’re zealous. They hate coal, and this governor is right in there with them, and I’m against this governor on this issue.”

Other Democrats said they support the idea of the initiative but voted for the Republican bill because of the impact on certain energy jobs, especially in a moment of high unemployment.

“We are in the midst of a global pandemic where millions of workers have lost their jobs,” said Rep. Dan Deasy, D-Allegheny. “Every effort must be made to sustain and create all the family-sustaining jobs that we can. I would not be doing my job if I wasn’t working to ensure the retention and creation of much-needed jobs.”

Rep. Pat Harkins, D-Erie, who also voted for the bill, said he has “always pushed” for wind and solar energy and has “no animosity toward” multi-state compacts like the initiative.

“It’s more short term, this COVID situation: jobs. Who knows what the future will hold for us, and we have to make sure that we have employment,” Harkins said.

Even Democratic leadership was split. Minority Leader Frank Dermody, of Allegheny County, joined Republicans, breaking with Minority House Whip Jordan Harris, of Philadelphia. A spokesman for Dermody, who has a coal power plant in his district, also referred to the goal of preserving jobs as a reason he voted against it.

The House-passed bill moved to the Senate, and Senate Republicans spokeswoman Jenn Kocher said the bill will go through the committee process in that chamber.

Jordan Wolman is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association.

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