Part 1 of this blog highlighted the foresight of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative founders. These air and energy regulators acknowledged their uncertainty as to all the effects this new program might have on electricity ratepayers, and developed an agreement reflecting a willingness to improve the program for their benefit. The diligent participation by stakeholders in this latest program review and their thoughtful comments provide today’s RGGI decision makers with many useful proposals to improve the program.
RGGI’s Mapping Tool
The RGGI states seek feedback on the mapping tool they have developed, including “the format of the tool, the data that is presented, or any other aspects of the dashboard.” In making this request, the RGGI states are are to be commended for developing this very accessible and useful dashboard tool and for keeping with their track record of program review improvements.
One significant improvement that the RGGI states could make would be for the dashboard to incorporate criteria pollutants. This would truly make it an “emissions dashboard.” Taking this step would require expanding the dashboard’s features, but doing so would require no additional data collection or monitoring by any of the RGGI states. State air regulators already collect this information from each facility in the RGGI program. It is derived from Continuous Emission Monitoring Systems (CEMS) data for fossil electric generators of 25 MW or greater. CEMS data is available for over a half dozen pollutants, including oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter, exposure to which leads to serious illness and premature mortality. Improving the public’s monitoring capabilities will not turn RGGI into a multi-pollutant program any more than RGGI’s support for energy efficiency programs has turned RGGI into an energy efficiency program. But this improvement will provide important and needed information to public health advocates that are seeking to reduce power plant emissions, and will build on the track record of RGGI program investments made for the benefit of electricity ratepayers in the region.
The RGGI states should adjust the program threshold to incorporate generators that are smaller than the current 25 MW threshold. One RGGI state, New York, has done this already. Their program applies to stand-alone generators 15 MW or larger and to those that are 10 MW or larger if collocated at other RGGI generator sites. Other states could make this adjustment via the model rule or by adopting New York’s regulatory language in their own regulations.
While this action might have marginal impact on total regional emissions, avoiding the criteria pollutants produced by these few generators would be significant for the public health in the communities adjacent to fossil electric generation facilities. This is because these generators are older, less efficient and especially dirty. It is common knowledge that they create greater local air impacts on high-electricity-demand days when air quality, especially in EJ communities, is already at its worst.
Another step that the RGGI states could take to improve regional air quality is to exclude offsets from the program. Offsets are, by definition, emissions above the RGGI emissions cap. Offsets were adopted initially to provide flexibility, although limited to 4% of one’s compliance requirements. RGGI has developed much more sophisticated flexibility tools in its Emissions Containment Reserve and Cost Containment Reserve mechanisms rendering obsolete the use of offsets. Furthermore, California’s cap and trade program pays far more per ton for an offset than RGGI will; thus RGGI offsets do not provide any economic driver for increased carbon reductions. During the last program review, one RGGI state, Massachusetts, eliminated offsets, although they honor such allowances from across the region. Similarly, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Virginia do not accept applications for any offset projects, although they accept offset project allowances from elsewhere to demonstrate compliance. Other states could do the same.
Improving Access and Participation
The RGGI states can build on their current efforts to work with community groups to better define environmental justice and to engage these communities more meaningfully as partners and stakeholders in RGGI decision-making. New Jersey provides a useful model, defining EJ communities based on income, identification as member of a minority or tribal community, or limited English proficiency. RAP’s Public Access and Participation Plans: A Starter Kit for State Agencies may be useful in this context. It outlines simple steps that state agencies like those engaged in program review can take to improve their outreach, and promote public participation.
Revisiting the Consumer Benefit Allocation for EJ Communities
As noted in Part 1, the RGGI states adopted a consumer benefit allocation of 25% in the original design of the program. The investment dollars produced by this program have made a significant difference in many of the RGGI states, as recently noted by Ben Grumbles, former secretary of the Maryland Department of Environment and executive director of Environmental Council of the States.
Program revenues could be directly allocated within each state based on the population living in EJ communities. Allocation could also be modeled upon recent federal activity. For example, President Biden’s Executive Order 13985 launched the Justice40 initiative, an effort to ensure that federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, work with states and local communities to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from all federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.
There are many ways that allocating and targeting funding could help mitigate negative effects of RGGI jurisdictional fossil fired electric generation on EJ communities. For example, as suggested by the Analysis Group in their recent study of environmental impacts of RGGI, program allowance proceeds could “support the participation of community members in relevant program reviews and other formal state proceedings” related to siting, development and permitting of power plants.
RGGI Has a Great Story to Tell
As we have learned over the years, many electricity ratepayers in the RGGI region drive past power plants on their way home at the end of the day, while others live immediately downwind or directly in the shadow of the power plants that serve us all. The good news is that the RGGI MOU, signed nearly 20 years ago, was drafted in a way to enable today’s decision-makers to meet the needs of every one of their electricity ratepayers, especially priority populations that continue to experience more negative effects of power plants in the region. This 2023 program review is another opportunity for RGGI leaders to carry on a worthy tradition of hearing the voices of all citizens in the region and further improving upon an already excellent program.