RGGI Presents an Opportunity to Promote Anti-racist Environmental Policy

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has closed the public comment period regarding Gov. Tom Wolf’s move to link the commonwealth to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI is a bipartisan, multi-state, market-based cap and trade program that aims to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and other air pollutants from power plants. Recently, I testified in support of RGGI during a series of virtual public hearings. More than 95% of those testifying supported Pennsylvania joining this program. It is clear that the people of the commonwealth are more than ready for action to reduce carbon emissions.

By participating in RGGI, Pennsylvania can incentivize power companies to do better, to reduce their pollution, and to hopefully invest in cleaner and zero-carbon energy over time. RGGI has proven state after state to be successful in reducing power sector-driven air pollution and reducing asthma attacks and respiratory-related hospital visits.

However, for generations, communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the siting of polluting sources like the now-shuttered oil refinery in southwest Philadelphia and the SEPTA natural gas power plant in Nicetown. Communities living near polluting industries - most often communities of color - endure more air pollution, higher asthma rates, and more environmental health harms than white communities. These communities are also often last to benefit from climate change efforts such as clean, renewable, and more efficient energy sources including wind and solar.

While RGGI is proven to work, it may not guarantee reduced greenhouse gas emissions in communities of color and other frontline communities. However, if we build safeguards into the policy now, all communities, particularly those impacted by pollution, can benefit from an equitable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. RGGI must be aligned with an environmental justice strategy so that inherently, structurally biased market forces do not continue to drive racial and socio-economic inequities. If this is done right, we can decrease the burden of frontline communities and significantly improve the conditions of Black and Brown Pennsylvanians.

For this to happen, impacted communities, environmental justice leaders, and the public should be frequently consulted on the design, implementation, and continuation of our state’s participation in RGGI. DEP should also collect and make publicly available data that identifies how RGGI impacts environmental justice communities and, specifically, shows the distribution of carbon emissions reductions throughout the commonwealth.

Lastly, a significant portion of the estimated $300 million annual proceeds should be allocated to programs that assist environmental justice communities. A fund should be created to address air pollution in these communities, support weatherization and low-income energy assistance programs, and focus on additional inequities that arise as a result of our participation in RGGI.

RGGI makes sense economically and environmentally. It will reduce air pollution, have a significant impact on climate change, and create jobs. We should all be supportive of that.

However, we cannot miss this opportunity to address systemic, structural environmental racism. RGGI cannot advance inherently unfair and racist policies that keep marginalized residents locked-in to environmentally harmful areas and locked out of the rewards of good environmental policy - cleaner, affordable energy, cleaner air, and cleaner jobs.