Pa. Supreme Court hears arguments on order halting greenhouse gas reduction program

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two separate but related cases over a multi-state cap-and-trade program aimed at reducing the commonwealth’s carbon emissions. 

On Wednesday, the high court heard arguments on whether the state should be able to move forward with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative while a lower court decides if former Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration exceeded its powers by entering the program.

The court’s six justices were also asked to consider whether three environmental advocacy groups should be allowed to participate and present evidence in the lower court case.

An attorney for acting state Environmental Protection Secretary Richard Negrin said the Commonwealth Court was wrong when it issued an order last summer halting the commonwealth’s participation in the regional compact. 

In his order, Commonwealth Court Judge Michael Wojcik said there was a substantial legal question whether the money the state will receive through the auction of carbon credits is an unconstitutional tax. 

The DEP’s attorney, Matthew White, argued that Wojcik should have gone further to determine whether the four state senators who challenged RGGI would suffer irreparable harm, an essential element to winning an injunction.

“The plaintiffs are four individual senators. They don’t have any harm,” White said. 

Brigid Khuri, one of the attorneys representing members of the General Assembly, said that if the RGGI revenue is ultimately found to be a tax, that would be an infringement by the DEP on the powers of the Legislature.

“There is no way to remedy the harm to the General Assembly at that point,” Khuri said.

Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, the Sierra Club, and the Clean Air Council appealed a decision denying their request to participate in the Commonwealth Court case.

Their attorney, Jessica O’Neill, argued the groups have a right to participate as beneficiaries of the state’s Clean Air Fund, which is slated to receive a portion of the RGGI auction money, under Pennsylvania’s Trusts Law.

The advocacy groups also have an interest in whether lawmakers proved that blocking RGGI would do less harm than letting it go forward, O’Neill said. 

“That’s where my clients … really felt that we had interests that were not adequately being represented, that we needed to put forward that evidence of harm to real people to Pennsylvanians and to the environment,” O’Neill told reporters after the argument.

Pennsylvania formally entered the program, to participate in quarterly carbon credit auctions, back in April 2022 after several years of debate and controversy, joining neighboring states New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware. 

Opponents have previously called the decision to join RGGI unconstitutional, accusing Wolf of executive overreach

Lawmakers in the General Assembly also made several legislative attempts to block the regulation from taking effect before taking legal action to challenge the executive order.  

In July 2022, the Commonwealth Court issued an order, blocking the state from continuing its efforts to join RGGI. 

The court order has prevented the commonwealth from participating in any of the carbon credit auctions since joining the program. 

Officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Quality Board appealed the order to the state Supreme Court, which has yet to issue a ruling. 

Katie Blume, political and legislative director for Conservation Voters of PA, spoke to reporters following the arguments on Wednesday, thanking Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration for continuing to defend Pennsylvania’s RGGI rules.

“We know that Pennsylvania is in a position to become a real leader on the energy transition that we know we need,” Blume said. 

Shapiro’s $44.4 billion budget proposal includes $663.3 million from the cap-and-trade program.

The regional carbon reduction program is the best tool that Pennsylvania has, and it has contributed to reducing carbon emissions by more than 50% in states where it is already in effect. 

“We know that the proceeds from the RGGI auction have the potential for further growth in a Pennsylvania clean energy economy,” Blume said.

Blume also addressed critics who said RGGI would lead to the loss of jobs in the energy sector, noting that the owners of the state’s largest coal-burning power plant announced its closure last month.

“These are market forces that are already changing Pennsylvania’s energy economy. So participating in RGGI, doing this the right way, and investing any proceeds into the Clean Air Fund will ultimately help Pennsylvanians and jobs and the air that we breathe,” Blume said.

The state Supreme Court has no deadline to issue a decision. Meanwhile, the parties are awaiting a final ruling from the Commonwealth Court.

Originally published at,by Peter Hall

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