Capitol Beat

‘There's got to be an all-of-the-above strategy’: PA Senate GOP Leader Joe Pittman talks energy policy in Pennsylvania

Pittman discusses the future of Pennsylvania’s cap-and-trade plan and what energy issues could find bipartisan support in the General Assembly.

Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman speaks at a December 2023 press conference in Harrisburg.

Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman speaks at a December 2023 press conference in Harrisburg. Commonwealth Media Services

Throughout his time in the Pennsylvania Senate, Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman has been a major voice in conversations about the future of the commonwealth’s energy policies. In consecutive legislative sessions, Pittman led efforts to push back against the state’s planned entrance into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative; now, as majority leader, Pittman oversees the direction of the GOP-led state Senate. 

Pittman recently spoke with City & State about several energy-related issues facing Pennsylvania, including whether the state should consider another cap-and-trade proposal to regulate emissions, bipartisan buy-in behind plugging orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells, as well as whether state lawmakers will consider updating the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act anytime soon.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Pennsylvania’s planned entrance into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has been a yearslong process. At the end of the day, what do you want to see happen when it comes to Pennsylvania’s involvement in RGGI?

I want to see us put an end to this debate once and for all. This has been a nearly five-year tug of war over whether or not the commonwealth would enter into this compact. I believe the very conversation has injected so much uncertainty into our energy marketplace that it has really crippled our ability to build upon the assets that we already had. It’s time to set a reset button. It’s time to put this issue to bed. The Commonwealth Court ruling was unambiguous and it was decisive, and we are losing precious time by continuing down this path at the expense of having honest conversations about where we go from here.

Looking at cap-and-trade proposals more broadly, should Pennsylvania ever consider another cap-and-trade plan?

The only way it makes sense is if we do it where we’re on a level playing field with our competitors, and what I mean by that is – Pennsylvania is the largest exporter of electricity in the (region), and so it’s a massive economic engine. One of the chief complaints I have about RGGI is that if we enter into it, the production of electricity in Pennsylvania will be less competitive than the production of electricity in states such as West Virginia and Ohio. From my vantage point, it makes no sense to put us on an uncompetitive playing field for almost negligible environmental benefit. It just puts us in a position where we’re giving up economic opportunity. If we were to enter into something – and I’m not a believer, generally, that cap-and-trade programs move the needle – but if we were going to do it, it should, at a minimum, be grid-wide and (make) sure that the entire grid is operating at the same level playing field.

Regardless of how the court decides on this, should the state take more of an active role in assisting workers at power plants that may be closing – whether it be to market forces or state policy?

I think it absolutely does, and I think the most significant focus needs to be to take these plants and figure out how to bring them to the highest and best use for providing family-sustaining wages to those communities – and also real estate tax revenue. One of the things that I think has been lost on the advocates of RGGI is that when you look at my area, and you look at the amount of real estate tax revenue these power plants pay – they are the driving force in making sure those school districts that house them are able to deliver education to those communities. These are economic powerhouses. There’s no question that the market evolves. Things change. We certainly understand and respect that. The problem is, in this case, we’re using the heavy hand of government to put an anvil over the head – not only of those entities that own these power plants – but more importantly, the employees and their families and creates a significant uncertainty as to where the future may be going as it relates to those properties. At some point, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that’s one of the biggest concerns that I have with RGGI at this point – the entire conversation has become a self-fulfilling prophecy in that any entity that owns these power plants is not going to make capital investments in them with such an uncertain future in front of them.

Shifting away from RGGI and looking at energy more broadly, are there any policy changes, statute fixes or anything else that is a priority for you?

I think we need to focus on some of the areas of common ground, such as the plugging of orphaned and abandoned wells. I think that is a priority that makes a lot of sense. I consider that, in many respects, low-hanging fruit on ways to improve the environment and take care of issues that were developed through bad practices in many years preceding today. 

There are issues such as continued remediation of abandoned mine reclamation sites to clean up water and properly reuse those refuse piles. That's an area that we should be focused on. 

Obviously, watershed management – cleaning up the watersheds, particularly the Chesapeake Bay – is due for additional focus.

I'm glad you brought up the abandoned oil and gas wells. That’s something that the governor has proposed an additional multimillion-dollar investment in this year. It sounds like that’s something worthy of future investment from the state?

I think making the most of the federal dollars available, trying to make investments ourselves in that – one of the areas that we have to focus on is ensuring that Pennsylvania companies receive priority in getting the contracts to take care of these wells. That is something that I have heard anecdotally from employers in my area who have expertise in that – that some of these awards have come at the expense of out-of-state companies, which I think is self-defeating. But the main basic premise, I think, is something we should absolutely pursue.

Some Democrats in your chamber have suggested that the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act (which requires electric distribution companies and electric generation suppliers to produce a portion of their electricity from alternative resources) is in need of a refresh. Is there any appetite for something like that in the Senate?

That’s a conversation that we’re open to. The details of AEPS are very, very specific. It’s a path that you have to walk down very carefully, and you have to be honest about what the real capacities are to meet the standards that are set. I do think that there’s room for discussion of innovative technologies. We’ve heard a lot about fusion technology. We hear a lot about small modular nuclear reactors coming onto the scene. I think those are areas that are worthy of at least ventilating in the public and seeing where those could be enhanced. I think, at the end of the day, we have to be very honest about what the true capacity of wind and solar is in this commonwealth in particular, relative to the impacts that they have on communities and in the consumption of land.

Certain states have struggled in recent years with grid outages. Texas comes to mind back in 2021. Are there ways legislatively that the state can improve its grid resiliency and grid security?

There are ways we need to look at improving it, but I think a lot of the burden is also on the PJM Interconnection. The PJM Interconnection has to come up with a way of recognizing the capacity needs to support baseload energy. I recognize that coal-fired power plants are aged and dinosaurs in many respects, but there are certain times of the year when they are critically valuable regarding grid resiliency. They have to be maintained to some degree. Natural gas plants are obviously a great addition to the grid. Economically, they’re much more competitive than coal-fired power plants, but they have some real limitations, particularly in the winter months. If the demand for home heating natural gas is high, it limits their ability to access the resource for electrical production. So there’s got to be an all-of-the-above strategy to understand that the only way the grid maintains itself is by having all of the sources that put electrons into the grid complement each other, and that's what I think we’re stepping away from with a lot of our energy policies.

NEXT STORY: Q&A with E. Mitchell Swann