Pa. Gov. Wolf Needs to Score Bigger Climate Victories, Activists Say

For instance, Wolf's administration empowered the methane-emitting natural gas industry by permitting the construction of pipelines, including the heavily fined natural-gas liquid-carrying Mariner East pipelines, they say

Sections of steel pipe lie in a staging area before being inserted underground as part of the ETP-Sunoco Mariner East 2 pipeline in the Marchwood neighborhood of Exton, Pennsylvania on June 5, 2019
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Gov. Tom Wolf has notched perhaps his biggest victory in his strategy to fight climate change in Pennsylvania, but climate-change activists still see his record as full of contradictions and suggest he has enough time left in office to score farther-reaching accomplishments.

The Democratic governor won approval this week from a regulatory board for Pennsylvania to make Pennsylvania the first major fossil-fuel state to impose carbon pricing on power plants, the state's biggest source of carbon dioxide.

The plan likely will face a legal challenge — it faced strong opposition from coal and natural gas interests, labor unions and business associations — and its overall effect on greenhouse gas emissions remains to be seen.

It comes after Wolf's administration has lost opportunities to advance the cause of climate action, environmental advocates say.

For instance, Wolf's administration empowered the methane-emitting natural gas industry by permitting the construction of pipelines, including the heavily fined natural-gas liquid-carrying Mariner East pipelines, they say.

It has permitted gas-fired power plants, including two large plants whose permits are being challenged by environmental groups as too lax on emissions limits, while Wolf agreed to extend millions of dollars in tax breaks to turn natural gas into fertilizer and industrial chemicals.

Wolf’s “willingness to promote fracking infrastructure and plastics ... will be challenging to the governor’s long-term environmental legacy because I think science will show us in a few years just how detrimental those anti-environmental practices truly are,” said David Masur, executive director of Philadelphia-based PennEnvironment.

Meanwhile, Wolf could have done more to subsidize the buildout of electric-vehicle infrastructure, and backed away from chances to target vehicle emissions, Pennsylvania's second-biggest source of carbon dioxide, some say.

Some acknowledge that Wolf has had little room to maneuver.

His administration must follow permitting laws, and Pennsylvania's Republican-controlled Legislature is protective of hometown natural gas, oil and coal industries in the fossil fuel-rich state.

That has limited his options to executive actions.

At the end of his first term, his administration began enforcing tougher air pollution standards on equipment in new or updated well sites and along pipeline networks in Pennsylvania's vast natural gas industry.

He kicked off his second term by committing his administration to putting Pennsylvania on a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in line with 2015′s landmark Paris climate agreement.

The administration has worked hard on that, orienting state agencies toward climate-friendly practices and helping cities and counties to do the same while educating the public about how climate change affects them, Wolf’s environmental protection secretary, Patrick McDonnell, said.

“People are seeing it and are hungry for more information on how they can engage and how they can help,” McDonnell, said. “I think the programs we’re talking about are things that help businesses, residents, others take advantage of all the things we’re learning to really push things forward.”

While Wolf has just 16 months left in office, there are perhaps bigger steps his administration can take, say environmental advocates.

One is to enact a regulation that cracks down on emissions from pre-existing equipment used across Pennsylvania's natural gas fields and pipeline networks.

It is hung up, at least in part, on the question of whether to apply it to smaller-producing wells.

Joe Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, said it must cover those wells to be effective in capturing methane, a greenhouse gas that researchers say is far more potent than carbon dioxide.

A strong methane rule will be the most concrete way of reducing greenhouse gases, Minott said.

“His climate change legacy is frankly on the line," Minott said. The carbon-pricing program is a “good start, but it’s not enough.”

Masur said the Wolf administration must finalize a regulation to require automakers to offer electric cars for sale in Pennsylvania as a way to cut emissions.

That, said Masur, could be the “crown jewel of the governor's environmental legacy."

The effectiveness of the carbon-pricing program may depend on where emissions caps are set and whether money from the emissions credits is wisely spent on clean energy and energy efficiency programs.

Of great importance is ensuring that money equitably helps poor and minority communities that tend to be more exposed to pollution, said Mark Szybist, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“There are a lot of different ways that could go and how it goes could determine how much of an impact it has on climate change and on equity,” Szybist said.

That, he said, “will determine Wolf's legacy on the climate.”


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