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Delaware weighs joining RGGI states in deeper emissions cuts

Delaware Public Media

Delaware officials are considering making deeper cuts in carbon emissions from state power plants as part of a nine-state plan that is pressing ahead with its emissions program while the Trump administration rolls back climate policy.

The mid-Atlantic and northeastern states belonging to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are weighing policy options that would impose stricter limits on their power-plant emissions starting in 2020, ramping up a program that has driven down carbon emissions from those sources by 40 percent since it began in 2009.

The states have an existing commitment to cut emissions by an annual 2.5 percent which they achieve by selling “allowances” to power generators, and then using the revenue to invest in renewable energy and energy-efficiency measures.

In practice, regional emissions have fallen by about 5 percent a year under RGGI while consumers’ power prices have dropped in response to the increasing use of renewables and energy efficiency, boosting local economies.

With the successful track record claimed by RGGI and its backers in the environmental community, the organization is now looking at building on that with mandated annual cuts of 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent, and is being urged by environmental groups to do more.

Current discussions by Delaware and its partners are expected to result in a decision sometime this summer on whether to step up mandated cuts or continue at the current rate. The talks are focusing on three scenarios: whether to continue cutting emissions at about the current rate, or whether to increase that to 3 percent or 3.5 percent.

Advocates argue that RGGI’s success in cutting emissions without boosting power prices puts it in a strong position to make deeper cuts, especially at a time when the federal government is retreating from policy that would curb greenhouse gas and slow climate change.

“The benefits of a stronger RGGI do not depend on support from a Trump administration that is chocked full of delusional climate deniers hell-bent on pandering to the fossil fuel industry,” said the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that is pressing the RGGI states to adopt emissions cuts of 5 percent or more.

“In other words, the Trump administration can’t and won’t stop climate progress in the northeast and mid-Atlantic (and beyond),” the NRDC said in a blog post on the RGGI talks.

The RGGI states would be barely affected even if Trump achieves his proposed cancellation of the federal Clean Power Plan – an Obama initiative that would require deep cuts in power-plant emissions – because RGGI states have already cut emissions to a level that matches those in the federal plan, said Bruce Ho, an energy consultant with NRDC.

In Delaware, officials at the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control declined to comment on the progress of the RGGI talks or to say whether they support plans to make deeper cuts in emissions.

“The RGGI states have not set a deadline for the conclusion of the current program review but have committed to continue to communicate with stakeholders and provide updates as the process moves forward,” said Michael Globetti, a spokesman for DNREC.

DNREC’s former secretary, Collin O’Mara, said Delaware has been a leader in cutting emissions through closing coal-fired power plants such as some of the Indian River units, while increasing the use of natural gas and promoting solar, and so would be in a position to support stricter limits on emissions throughout the RGGI area.

“I would anticipate that Delaware will keep being a leader in this,” said O’Mara, now chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation. He urged the state and its RGGI partners to increase the environmental benefits by adding member states such as New Jersey which left the group in 2011.

Delaware’s motivation to back tighter emissions limits should be heightened by its high exposure to sea-level rise, which is exacerbated by global warming, said Stephanie Herron, outreach coordinator for the Delaware Sierra Club which advocates a 5 percent annual reduction in emissions for the region overall.

“We know that this is especially important for Delaware given our challenges with sea-level rise,” Herron said. “We need to be a leader in curbing our emissions.”

But not everyone agrees that RGGI’s policies have driven down power plant emissions.

Delaware’s Caesar Rodney Institute, a free-market think tank that is suing the state over its participation in RGGI, says that carbon reductions claimed by the initiative are in fact the result of the increased use of natural gas instead of coal; the closure of some coal-fired power plants, and the region’s high electricity prices which boost power imports from other states, effectively exporting carbon emissions.

The decline in emissions has also been driven by the departure of some energy-intensive industries from the region in response to high power prices, said David Stevenson, Director of the Institute’s Center for Energy Competitiveness.

“RGGI hasn’t cut carbon dioxide emissions anyway, so how are they going to cut it further?” said Stevenson. “When you add up the effects of those things in the RGGI states, that accounts for 100 percent of the reduction in emissions.”

Asked why RGGI continues to pursue its goals even if the lower emissions come from other sources, Stevenson argued that the organization is driven by some “very blue” states, and by a desire to defy the Trump administration on climate change.

“It’s part of the resistance movement,” he said. “They say ‘We’re going to continue this no matter what the president does to drop out of Paris or end the Clean Power Plan.’ But they are setting themselves up for failure because RGGI didn’t do the reduction.”

For its part, RGGI says the emissions cuts have saved money for private electricity customers and businesses; reduced the number of illnesses attributed to polluted air, and created jobs in the renewable energy and energy-efficiency industries.

Since its inception, the program has reduced consumers’ energy bills by some $4.7 billion, while boosting the regional economy by $2.9 billion, according to RGGI data.

The gains have been driven in part by clean-energy programs in some RGGI states including New York, Massachusetts and Maryland, all of which have cut demand for the power produced by fossil fuel plants, and with that their demand for the “allowances” that are sold by the states. Power generators are consequently able to cut their prices to consumers.

“As a result of all these state policies, the emissions trajectory in the power sector in the RGGI region is getting cleaner than it was even a year ago,” said Ho of NRDC. “It’s becoming cheaper, through renewable energy and energy efficiency, to continue to cut emissions in the future

Now, the states are poised to agree on future cuts that at a minimum match the current rate, said Ho, who participated in a recent webinar on RGGI policy with state officials.

“The states are all committed to continuing to cut the cap post 2020, and they are trying to figure out how far and how fast they are going to cut that cap,” Ho said. “Based on what the states have said, it does appear that they are looking at cap reductions that are at least as strong as the current one, and some that go further.”

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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