Q&A with House Environmental Resources and Energy Chair Greg Vitali

The Delaware County Democrat spoke to City & State on the future of energy in the commonwealth

Greg Vitali, House Environmental Resources and Energy Chair

Greg Vitali, House Environmental Resources and Energy Chair PA House

Few in Harrisburg have been dedicated to environmental protection as long as state Rep. Greg Vitali. The Delaware County Democrat has served on the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee for 28 years and as Democratic chair for eight years, taking over as majority chair when the chamber flipped in 2022. Now, with Democrats holding the House majority and Gov. Josh Shapiro sitting in the executive seat, talks around energy and environmental impacts have reignited.

City & State spoke with Vitali one-on-one to get a glimpse into House Democrats’ legislative priorities in the energy space as well as Vitali’s thoughts on the future of energy production in the commonwealth. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Opponents of RGGI have argued that if Pennsylvania were to enter into the cap-and-trade program, consumers would see increased energy costs and the energy sector would lose jobs. At the same time, proponents say the program would help subsidize already-dwindling fossil fuel jobs. What are your thoughts on that dynamic?

I’m supportive of RGGI and my hope is that once RGGI regulations are approved by the state Supreme Court, Pennsylvania will move forward with them. I think that’s the right thing to do. To date, nothing has been shared with me in regard to what an alternative cap-and-trade approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector would look like. 

One general observation I have about industry types who criticize any approach to address climate change – like RGGI or Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards legislation – is that they never acknowledge the seriousness of climate change and never propose any solutions of their own. RGGI is a time-tested program involving a number of states. It’s logical, it’s based on free market concepts and it should move forward in the commonwealth. 

Have you heard from anyone in the energy industry who would support some form of cap-and-trade, particularly as a way to subsidize transitioning workers into the green energy economy?

I don’t recall seeing any evidence of industry types being on board with revenue proceeds – they maintain their opposition to RGGI. But I believe the projected revenue would be a good way to enhance the climate benefits of RGGI by just encouraging measures that would further reduce greenhouse gas emissions like weatherization programs or subsidization of solar installation for low-income people. Part of the benefit of RGGI is this revenue. Right now, revenues would be required to be distributed under the Clean Air Act for environmental-related purposes, unless legislation changes that. 

How would you like to see the commonwealth prioritize renewable energy and any future energy production? 

Pennsylvania is doing a terrible job with regard to renewables. Pennsylvania is near the bottom of U.S. states as far as the electricity generated from renewable sources. Expanding our alternative energy portfolio standard could change that. 

Gov. Shapiro throughout his campaign said if a bill requiring 30% renewables by 2030 were to be put on his desk, he would sign it. We’re also waiting on the Shapiro administration for policy along those lines. One of my observations – after having spent more than 30 years in state government – is that nothing really happens without the support of the governor. 

When making that transition toward renewable energy, what channels would you like to see utilized to incentivize the shift and/or help the workforce?

If we increase the AEPS and require electric distribution companies like PECO and PP&L to get a higher percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, this will energize the development of renewable energy. Experts I’ve talked to say that increasing the AEPS is really key to solar development. It increases the price of renewable energy credits, thus making it much more profitable to develop utility-scale solar, rooftop solar and community solar. 

Do you see Pennsylvania as having the potential to become a major solar manufacturer?

Labor plays a very important role here – they are very influential in the Democratic Party. Oddly enough, labor groups are opposed to the AEPS bill in our committee, House Bill 1467. A number of labor groups have come out against that legislation, but at the same time, when labor groups spoke at the community solar hearing, they testified in favor of it. Getting labor on board is key to expanding renewables. 

What other energy-related bills or topics should we expect to see debated this session?

It’s tough for me to move a bill out of my committee with labor opposition. I’ve learned that I need 11 of my 12 members to get a bill out of committee – and if labor comes out against a given bill, it's difficult for me to get my members on board.

But I think if we had a proposal by the administration and there’s buy-in from the House Democratic caucus, that would be a way of getting the votes necessary to move an AEPS bill or an alternative proposal by the governor out of committee and have it become the subject of negotiations with the Senate. 

I also have a bill related to hydrogen hubs. The proposal in the eastern part of the state, the MACH2, proposes to use nuclear and renewable energies to produce hydrogen, which is much more climate-friendly than the proposal in the western part of the state, the ARCH2, which proposes to use natural gas. 

Hydrogen production can be a tool to address climate change, but the final U.S. Treasury regulations will be determinative of whether hydrogen production becomes a true tool to address climate change or whether it just becomes a way to maintain the use of natural gas. I have a bill that would basically put guardrails on a tax credit the legislature passed a couple of years ago with regard to hydrogen production. My bill, House Bill 1215, would in very broad terms limit this hydrogen production tax break to truly clean hydrogen and hydrogen used in the decarbonized sectors of the economy.

With hold-ups in Harrisburg, would you like to see more occurring at the federal level to support Pennsylvania’s energy sector?

Frankly, Pennsylvania is not really doing much to address climate change. It just seems like our salvation, if it’s to come, would need to come from the federal level. I think President Biden needs to be commended for the monies in federal programs like the Inflation Reduction Act and for incentivizing things like electric vehicle charging stations, well-plugging and other methods to address climate issues. Federal government leadership on this issue is crucial.