HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court will take its first crack at whether a governor can force power plant owners to pay for their planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, or whether he first needed approval from a Legislature that refused to go along with the plan.
Hanging in the balance is Pennsylvania’s effort to become the first major fossil fuel-producing state to adopt carbon pricing.
On Wednesday, the state’s highest court will hear arguments on whether a lower court was right to halt Pennsylvania’s participation in a multistate consortium that imposes a price and declining cap on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
The way the justices react could give hints as to how they might ultimately rule on whether Pennsylvania’s participation — without legislative approval — is constitutional.
It is no small amount of money: Pennsylvania would have raised more than $1 billion had it begun participating in 2022 when former Gov. Tom Wolf intended, according to calculations by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.
It became the central plank in Wolf’s plan to fight global warming.
Republican lawmakers, fossil fuel interests, industrial power users and trade unions oppose it, saying it will hurt the state’s energy industry and drive up electric bills.
The case is a political minefield for Gov. Josh Shapiro, Wolf’s successor and a fellow Democrat who was endorsed by some of the labor unions that fought Wolf’s effort to join the consortium.
Shapiro has maintained that he does not support entering the consortium, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, on Wolf’s terms. But he continues to fight for it in court and his top environmental protection appointee told lawmakers in March that joining the consortium is “a vehicle” that could help meet Shapiro’s “strong and very aspirational goals” to help the environment.
Meanwhile, Shapiro has assembled a task force to try to come up with something better — a task force that meets in secret and includes opponents from organized labor and executives from companies invested in fossil fuels, as well as supporters of carbon pricing.
State officials, independent researchers and environmental advocates say the money reaped by the state through the auction of emission credits can be spent on encouraging the growth of renewable energy and energy conservation. That, they say, would stabilize electricity bills, or lower them, while cutting greenhouse gas emissions and helping transition workers in fossil fuels into new industries.
Supporters of carbon pricing include the owners of solar, wind and nuclear power, whose installations would become more cost competitive as oil, gas and coal power pay higher prices to operate.
In 2019, Republican lawmakers refused to pass legislation authorizing Pennsylvania to join the consortium, then went to court with fossil fuel interests and labor unions when Wolf used his regulatory authority to join.
The lower court that halted Pennsylvania’s participation is still deciding the merits of the underlying legal challenge: whether the governor unconstitutionally usurped the Legislature’s authority to approve any form of taxation.
Shapiro has echoed criticism of Wolf’s carbon pricing plan, saying it could hurt the state’s energy industry, drive up electric prices and do little to curtail greenhouse gases.
For his part, Shapiro’s most well-defined clean-energy goal is a pledge to ensure Pennsylvania uses 30% of its electricity from renewable power sources by 2030, up from the current 8% in state law.