Fossil fuel industry and Koch network fighting Pennsylvania’s move to join regional greenhouse gas initiative

Together these interests broadly representing coal and petroleum producers are trying to prevent Pennsylvania from joining regional programs to curb carbon pollution.

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As Pennsylvania took a significant step this week towards joining a regional climate initiative to curb carbon pollution from power plants, newly revealed email records show how fossil fuel interests campaigned to oppose this initiative in a state that has the fifth most polluting electric power sector in the nation.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board, part of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), voted on September 15 to adopt draft regulations limiting carbon emissions from power plants as part of the state’s process of joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-invest program designed to slash emissions from the electric power sector. An ongoing battle has been brewing over Pennsylvania joining this program. Its Republican-controlled legislature is opposed to the state participating, while Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has taken executive action to start the process of joining.

“As the numerous hurricanes that have hit the Gulf Coast and devastating wildfires in the west have shown, climate change is not going to wait. When I signed the executive order last year it was because I knew it was time to tackle this problem, and RGGI is part of that solution,” Gov. Wolf said in a statement Wednesday, September 16, applauding the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) advancing the draft rule to join RGGI.

According to the Pennsylvania DEP, the state’s participation in RGGI would result in an additional 30,000 jobs (in energy efficiency and clean energy) and would reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 188 million tons between 2022 and 2030. The Clean Air Council, a Pennsylvania-based environmental advocacy group, said the EQB’s approval of the RGGI rule “represents the most significant policy step to reduce Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions in a long time.”

But conservative elected officials in the state and the fossil fuel industry have a very different view of this regional climate initiative, which they claim will kill jobs and raise energy costs. Both the GOP-led House and Senate in the state recently passed bills that would prohibit Pennsylvania from joining RGGI, and legislative committees have held a series of anti-RGGI hearings featuring testimony from climate deniers.

Furthermore, emails obtained by the environmental watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute (EPI) through records requests and shared with DeSmog reveal a coordinated, behind-the-scenes effort to stop this climate policy in Pennsylvania coming from both out-of-state and in-state fossil fuel interests such as coal businesses, fossil fuel lobbying firms and advocacy coalitions, and Koch-networked groups like Americans for Prosperity (AFP).     

Together these interests broadly representing coal and petroleum producers are trying to prevent Pennsylvania from joining regional programs to curb carbon pollution like RGGI and the proposed Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), a RGGI-style initiative addressing carbon emissions from the road transportation sector. 

AFP recruited counties to oppose regional climate initiatives

Emails reviewed by DeSmog show the Pennsylvania chapter of AFP met earlier this year with commissioners from Westmoreland County — a county in western Pennsylvania just east of Pittsburgh — to discuss a resolution opposing the state joining programs like RGGI and TCI.

The resolution, which misleadingly refers to the TCI program as a “gas tax” and RGGI as an “electricity tax,” borrows language from a similar resolution opposing the TCI program in Rhode Island sent out by the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a right-wing group that is a member of the Koch-backed State Policy Network (SPN). AFP’s State Director for Pennsylvania Ashley Sisca Klingensmith said in an email to Westmoreland County commissioners that she and an AFP energy policy analyst personally drafted the resolution opposing RGGI and TCI in Pennsylvania.

Screen shot of email from Americans for Prosperity-PA to Westmoreland County Commissioners, February 26, 2020. Highlights by EPI.

Westmoreland County Commissioner Douglas Chew told DeSmog that the resolution never advanced beyond the initial discussion “with one person from AFP,” which he said was held right before the county issued a state of emergency due to COVID-19. He added that he and Commissioner Sean Kertes would “likely have modified the resolution to suit our own opinions anyway.”

AFP’s outreach extended beyond Westmoreland County with the Koch-funded group recruiting other Pennsylvania counties, like Somerset County, to try to pass the resolution. Email records reveal that AFP-PA’s Emily Greene tried to schedule a meeting with Somerset County Commissioner Colleen Dawson in March, a meeting that was then canceled due to the COVID-19 shutdown. Commissioner Dawson told DeSmog there were no follow up meetings or discussions with AFP-PA on the resolution.*  

AFP also appears to have coordinated with state Republican lawmakers to build opposition to RGGI in the legislature.

One email from Klingensmith to Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers indicates that the Koch-networked opposition to RGGI and TCI is part of a “national coalition” with “stakeholders from numerous northeast states.” 

Screen shot of email from Americans for Prosperity-PA to Pennsylvania Republican legislators, March 10, 2020. Highlights by EPI.

“In short, this is part of a concerted Koch/SPN effort to undermine RGGI and TCI in New England and Pennsylvania,” said Itai Vardi, a researcher with EPI who has reported for DeSmog in the past.

Fossil fuel lobbyist coordinated with elected officials to drum up RGGI opposition

Other emails obtained by EPI show extensive coordination between a lobbyist representing fossil fuel interests and Pennsylvania elected officials opposing RGGI. The emails reveal a plan to “flood” the Pennsylvania DEP’s Citizen Advisory Council with opposition to RGGI, as coordinated by lobbyist Peter Gleason of the firm K&L Gates, which represents fossil fuel companies such as Cabot, Chesapeake, and Vistra. Gleason is representing Pennsylvania coal plant owner Olympus Power in the RGGI opposition campaign.

Screen shot of email from lobbyist Peter Gleason to several Republican legislators and the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance. Highlights by EPI.

One email went out on May 12 to several GOP lawmakers like Reps. James Struzzi and Donna Oberlander, both sponsors of anti-RGGI bill HB2025, as well as to the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance. Another email went out that day to a coalition called Power PA Jobs Alliance, an alliance of Pennsylvania business and fossil fuel interests opposed to regulatory climate action like the RGGI program.

As Vardi told DeSmog, this coalition is coordinated through a D.C.-based network with further fossil fuel industry ties called the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC). Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) President Barry Russell sits on BIPAC’s Board, for example. BIPAC has received funding in recent years from such fossil fuel industry players as the IPAA, Occidental Petroleum, Noble Energy, and Phillips 66. BIPAC hosts the website for Power PA Jobs Alliance, the primary in-state coalition fighting Pennsylvania’s efforts to join RGGI.

State moving ahead with RGGI rule

Despite this extensive fossil fuel-powered opposition campaign, Pennsylvania is moving ahead with its plan to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and slash power-sector carbon pollution. The Pennsylvania Attorney General will next review the proposed regulation passed by the Environmental Quality Board, and the public will be able to weigh in through an official comment period.

“This is an important step for Pennsylvania’s efforts to combat climate change, which is already having and will continue to have a dramatic effect on Pennsylvania,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a statement. “This is incredibly important and we are looking forward to hearing from the people of Pennsylvania about this effort.”

*Updated 9/18/20: This story originally stated that [Somerset County] Commissioner Dawson did not immediately respond to a DeSmog inquiry asking why she engaged with AFP on the group’s campaign to oppose RGGI. Dawson has since responded clarifying that county commissioners “did not engage with AFP on this issue.” 

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