Wolf sets goals for Pennsylvania to cut greenhouse gases

Gov. Tom Wolf is stepping up the fight against climate change and setting targets to slash Pennsylvania's greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades in a heavily populated and fossil fuel-rich state that has long been one of the nation's biggest polluters.

Wolf, a Democrat, on Tuesday issued an executive order that commits his administration to meeting certain targets, putting the state in a league with what the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions says are 20 other states that already set targets.

Wolf's administration contends that Pennsylvania is already feeling the effects of climate change and that damaging changes are coming, including more extreme weather, flooding and pest and disease management challenges for farmers and ranchers.

"This is not something that is meant to be an abstraction," Wolf said during a Tuesday morning appearance on KDKA-AM radio in Pittsburgh. "I mean all over the state this past year we've had unusual weather."

The order is non-binding and does not require future governors to follow it after Wolf leaves office when his second term ends in 2023. Making major progress will likely require agreements with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The order comes as operators of nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania seek a subsidy to remain open and Wolf's administration works to get tougher on methane emissions from Pennsylvania's vast natural gas exploration fields.

Wolf wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2025, based on 2005 levels, and by 80 percent by 2050. The goals are in line with 2015's landmark Paris climate agreement that President Donald Trump, a Republican, decided to pull the United States out of.

A 180-page draft plan produced in November by Wolf's administration gives a roadmap for how to achieve those goals. The biggest reductions, it suggests, would come from keeping nuclear power plants from closing, requiring utilities to buy more electricity from renewable energies and creating incentives to expand electric vehicle use.

The administration is still taking public comment on the plan and Wolf has not yet highlighted any specific legislation that is designed to achieve reduction targets.

In the meantime, Wolf is reviewing a regulatory petition filed in recent weeks by more than 60 parties, including solar energy firms, seeking to make Pennsylvania carbon neutral by 2052 by imposing a California-style cap-and-trade program.

A leading state business advocacy group, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, issued a statement Tuesday urging Wolf to favor approaches that encourage private-sector competition, in-state energy industries and economic growth as he develops a greenhouse gas plan.

Meeting 2025's goal seems to be within reach, since federal data shows Pennsylvania's carbon dioxide emissions shrank more than 20 percent between 2005 and 2016, driven by a shift from coal to natural gas as a source for electricity generation.

"We're about halfway to where I want us to be, so we have some work to do," Wolf said. "But I think part of what we have to do is say here's our goal, here's how we're going to be measuring this and we all need to get to a better place."

Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with one-thirds coming from the combustion of fossil fuels for transportation and one-third from power generation.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is one of the most potent heat-trapping pollutants, at least 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, the EPA says.

Pennsylvania is the fourth-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, according to federal data. It is the nation's third-biggest producer of coal and the nation's second-biggest natural gas state, according to federal data.