Md.’s RGGI choice

Our view: Set­ting a tougher re­gional stan­dard for green­house gas emis­sions may not prove as easy as it sounds

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

From the start, Mary­land’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Re­gional Green­house Gas Ini­tia­tive has been an un­mit­i­gated suc­cess. The mul­ti­state cap-and-trade com­pact has sub­stan­tially re­duced green­house gas emis­sions from power plants while re­duc­ing av­er­age util­ity bills and in­vest­ing more than $1.3 bil­lion in clean en­ergy and con­ser­va­tion ini­tia­tives that have cre­ated at least 14,000 new jobs.

The ques­tion now be­fore Mary­land and the eight other north­east­ern states that have been a part of RGGI for most of the last decade is this: Should the vol­un­tary ar­range­ment be ex­tended past 2020 and, if so, what should be its goals? Mas­sachusetts sup­ports rais­ing the stan­dard from a 2.5 per­cent re­duc­tion in emis­sions each year to 5 per­cent — a tar­get Gov. Larry Ho­gan’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has said might be too am­bi­tious for Mary­land to re­main in­volved.

Mary­land Depart­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment Sec­re­tary Ben Grum­bles in­sists that the state re­mains com­mit­ted to cleaner air but wor­ries about un­in­tended con­se­quences. Delaware may be fac­ing a sim­i­lar choice if the more strin­gent goal puts the state at a com­pet­i­tive dis­ad­van­tage with­out nec­es­sar­ily pro­duc­ing cleaner air. Both states draw a greater per­cent­age of their elec­tric­ity from coal-fired power plants than do New Eng­land states. A full with­drawal from RGGI is a sce­nario that Mr. Grum­bles be­lieves to be un­likely but can’t rule out.

But while Sec­re­tary Grum­bles has spo­ken ap­prov­ingly of RGGI be­fore (telling The Sun’s editorial board last year that it’s been “smart” and “use­ful”), it’s not clear ex­actly what (or who) will drive the state’s po­si­tion. Gov­er­nor Ho­gan’s de­ci­sion ear­lier this year to veto a pop­u­lar emis­sions-re­lated bill ap­proved by the Gen­eral As­sem­bly has al­ready cast doubt about the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s com­mit­ment to im­prov­ing air qual­ity and fight­ing cli­mate change.

The leg­is­la­tion, the Clean En­ergy Jobs Act, would have raised Mary­land’s clean en­ergy goal from 20 per­cent to 25 per­cent, a tar­get that seemed en­tirely rea­son­able given the state’s long-term quest to reach 40 per­cent car­bon re­duc­tions by 2030. The gov­er­nor’s rea­son­ing? It could prove costly to ratepay­ers.

But how the cost is­sue would play out is not ex­actly clear. A decade ago, RGGI op­po­nents made the same claim with the same logic — cleaner air means higher elec­tric­ity rates. But it didn’t work out that way. A 2015 study found that peo­ple liv­ing in RGGI states ac­tu­ally ended up pay­ing less for power than peo­ple liv­ing else­where while the pro­ceeds from RGGI auc­tions fu­eled in­vest­ments that saved busi­ness and res­i­den­tial cus­tomers money, too.

So what would the Clean En­ergy Jobs Act have cost? Es­ti­mates run all over the place, but an anal­y­sis con­ducted by the Depart­ment of Leg­isla­tive Ser­vices projects av­er­age monthly bills ris­ing by an av­er­age of $1-$2 in fu­ture years (and per­haps by much less). And even that es­ti­mate fails to take into ac­count the health sav­ings pro­duced by cleaner air — no small con­sid­er­a­tion in a state with En­vi­ron­ment Sec­re­tary Ben Grum­bles, right, is push­ing back against ef­forts to toughen a re­gional cap-and-trade sys­tem. fail­ing air pol­lu­tion grades from the Amer­i­can Lung As­so­ci­a­tion and one that is bur­dened with the fifth-worst adult asthma in the nation.

There’s also a mat­ter of op­por­tu­nity cost. As the United States and other coun­tries move to­ward low­er­ing car­bon diox­ide and other green­house gas emis­sions, states that act sooner rather than later will be re­warded with clean en­ergy jobs. Large com­pa­nies like Ikea, Sta­ples, Gap and North Face are al­ready lob­by­ing for the tougher RGGI stan­dards be­cause they see long-term ben­e­fits to the econ­omy and con­sumer spend­ing.

But here’s where the Ho­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion may have some le­git­i­mate con­cern: Neigh­bor­ing states like Penn­syl­va­nia aren’t part of RGGI. While they, too, will pre­sum­ably have to re­duce green­house gas emis­sions from power plants un­der the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (which was put on a tem­po­rary hold ear­lier this year by the Supreme Court prior to An­tonin Scalia’s death), Mary­land ratepay­ers might find them­selves cursed twice — pay­ing more for cleaner power but still suf­fer­ing down­wind power plant pol­lu­tion. The only dif­fer­ence would be that the elec­tric­ity from those same coal-fired power plants will be con­sumed in places like Philadelphia, Har­ris­burg and Pitts­burgh in­stead of Bal­ti­more, An­napo­lis or Rockville.

The an­swer? Get more states to join RGGI and elect a pres­i­dent who sup­ports the Clean Power Plan. (Hint: Don­ald J. Trump doesn’t.) That would surely be a wel­come de­vel­op­ment, but RGGI mem­bers may still need to al­low for the cir­cum­stances of states lo­cated in dif­fer­ing power grids. Polls show most Mary­lan­ders are will­ing to pay more for elec­tric­ity in ex­change for cleaner air, but pay­ing more for elec­tric­ity and get­ting no en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fit in re­turn? That would be a prob­lem.

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASHINGTON POST

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