This is the second in a 3-part series, A sea change in action: Bay states plan for future climate, providing an overview of state-level climate initiatives in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. See also Political shift in VA has climate advocates hopeful for action.
Pennsylvania, which ranks fourth in the nation in its emissions of climate-altering carbon dioxide, took a much bolder stance in addressing climate change in 2019, at least in words.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled four separate actions aimed at curbing climate change, each bolder than the one before.
Wolf started off in January 2019 by issuing an executive order that set the first statewide goal for greenhouse gas reductions. The target is a 26% reduction by 2025 and an 80% decrease by 2050 from 2005 levels.
The primary means to achieve those scalebacks: more energy-efficient government buildings, switching a quarter of the government fleet of vehicles to electric or hybrid models by 2025, and requiring that at least 40% of the energy used in the state come from renewable sources, listed as natural gas, wind and solar.
Wolf called climate change “the most critical environmental threat facing the world.”
The state’s temperatures have risen nearly 2 degrees since the early 1900s and nearly 4 degrees in winter, according to state agencies. Officials warn of sea level rise, hotter summer temperatures, increased flooding, more extreme storms and more unhealthy air over the next century if greenhouse gases are not curtailed. Though Pennsylvania is not an oceanfront state, there are concerns about how the tidal Delaware River will affect the vast industrial complex along the river around Philadelphia, including fears that runways at the Philadelphia International Airport will flood.
Pennsylvania is a power plant and industry-heavy state, both main sources of carbon dioxide. In addition, the state ranks second in the nation in the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas and fifth in dairy cows. Both sources produce methane, an even more potent but less prevalent greenhouse gas.
Wolf backs controversial natural gas production, though, and some environmental groups and legislators criticized the governor for not seeking better controls on emissions from natural gas extraction as part of his climate change package.
But in mid-December, Wolf-backed rules to cut methane emissions from gas wells were approved by the state Environmental Quality Board by an 18–1 vote.
The governor’s first executive action was followed up in April with a significant update to the state’s Climate Action Plan, which had been in existence for several years. At the same time, Wolf announced he was joining 23 other governors in the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of governors pledging to keep the commitments the United States made in the Paris Agreement in 2016 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. President Donald Trump has begun to withdraw the United States from the worldwide agreement.
“With the federal government turning its back on science and the environment, I am proud to join with states that are leading the way toward new climate solutions and taking concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Wolf said.
“States like Pennsylvania must take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect our communities, economies, infrastructures and environments from the risks of a warming planet.”
Pennsylvania’s new Climate Action Plan describes more than 100 actions aimed at state and local governments, businesses and citizens. It calls for changes that affect energy, transportation and agriculture.
It also contains dire warnings if action is not taken.
“The impacts of climate change are real and will continue to put Pennsylvanians at risk from increased flooding, higher temperatures and more,” the plan stated. Farmers will have to deal with increasing problems with pests, weeds and diseases, the report continued, and “public health will deteriorate because climate change will worsen air quality.”
Expect more frequent road washouts and more power outages, the plan added.
One chief strategy in the plan is to update the state’s building codes to promote the construction of more energy-efficient buildings and make it easier for the public to install solar-power systems.
In addition to rolling out more electric or hybrid vehicles in the public sector, the plan calls for converting public buses to electric motors and reducing the number of vehicles driven to work containing only one person. More sustainable transportation practices are called for, such as installing electric-vehicle charging stations and encouraging bike sharing.
In the energy sector, the state calls for increasing the percentage of electricity that utilities are required to generate from renewables. The list of desired renewables includes solar, wind, low-impact hydro, geothermal, biomass, methane gas, coal-mine methane and fuel cell resources.
Pointedly, the plan called for nuclear power to remain at its current level. It’s not clear how that’s possible, given that the Three Mile Island nuclear plant shut down on Sept. 20 and the Beaver Valley nuclear plant plans to close in 2021 unless it receives a bailout by the state legislature. Unlike states such as Illinois and New York, Pennsylvania legislators have balked at making $500 million available annually to the state’s four remaining nuclear plants.
Changes to agriculture may also help reduce carbon emissions. The plan wants to see more methane gas recovered from manure and used to produce electricity, as well as more no-till farming and other conservation practices. No-till farming allows the soil to soak up more water, reducing runoff and reducing the carbon releases that occur when soil is disturbed.
Addressing climate change in the state will place considerable reliance on public forests to act as “carbon sinks.”
In fact, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which owns 2.2 million acres of forestlands and advises private owners of another 17 million acres, came up with its own “Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Plan” in 2018.
Recognizing the importance of trees to capture carbon dioxide out of the air, the agency vowed to allow no net loss of forests in Pennsylvania.
But the projected impacts of climate change will be considerable on forests. Changes in weather will mean a loss of some tree species and the arrival of others, along with more tree-damaging insects and invasive plants. Wildfires and blowdowns from trees killed by insects are expected to increase.
State forest officials expect difficult and costly land-management changes that will affect the use of state forests and parks. With less snow, they may be used less in winter for such activities as snowmobiling. In summer, there may be overflows of visitors seeking refuge from heat, especially those parks with lakes and pools.
Among the proposed changes in forest management: less timbering to maintain the ability of forests to capture carbon; focusing on tree species expected to do well in warmer, wetter conditions; planting more streamside buffers; and protecting key tracts of land so tree species fleeing too-warm conditions can move naturally along tree corridors.
Wolf’s proposed four-year, $4.5 billion “Restore PA” infrastructure initiative also touches on climate change. The program would be underwritten by a severance fee on natural gas. One of the program’s five major goals is to help flood-prone communities prepare for high water by upgrading flood walls and levees, replacing high-hazard dams and conducting stream-restoration projects.
In October, Wolf took yet another anti-climate change executive action by ordering the state’s environmental agency to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a coalition of nine mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states committed to placing limits on carbon emissions from power plants with a cap-and-trade system.
Such a system would make it more expensive to produce and use power from fossil fuels. Large power plants would have to pay for carbon emissions beyond a cap set by 10 member states. The proceeds are to be allocated back to states to be used for investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Expecting pushback from the Republican-controlled legislature, Wolf used an executive order, claiming authority under the federal Clean Air Act.
“Pennsylvania’s participation in [the greenhouse gas initiative] has the potential to be the most meaningful step in reducing climate pollution that the Commonwealth has ever taken, and not a moment too soon,” responded the Sierra Club.
But Republican legislators are trying to block the state’s participation in the initiative. In November, two bills were introduced to require the legislature to approve membership. The bills came from legislators in western Pennsylvania, the heart of the state’s coal-mining region. Wolf had sought membership by July 2020.
Wolf’s climate change initiatives have generally brought acclaim from environmental groups, many of whom had scolded the governor previously for not doing enough on the issue.
“These are pretty significant steps,” said Ezra Thrush of PennFuture. “But [the initiative] is not enough. We need to also push for something that jump-starts the renewable energy in the state.”
Late in the year, legislators introduced bills to expand solar energy and to increase charging stations for electric vehicles.