Turning Down the Heat – What sort of legal and legislative action is necessary to help put Pennsylvania on the front lines of the battle against climate change

Pennsylvania’s Best Lawyers

(by Joseph Reinhart)

Much state environmental law is based on federal statutes. How can environmental-law attorneys help?

Environmental lawyers can be instrumental in sustaining rural communities and protecting natural resources by helping landowners and businesses understand the complex and interrelated laws and regulations governing so many aspects of economic development. Many municipalities in Pennsylvania have passed ordinances designed to protect residents in rural areas from environmental harm associated with natural-resource development. In some cases, these ordinances are issued with the intention of implementing Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment. These ordinances may require approval prior to conducting activities as common as earth disturbance and road usage. Sorting out the laws and ordinances applicable to these activities, and determining which governmental authority has jurisdiction over them, are tasks well-suited to attorneys trained in environmental law.

Many states have developed their own climate-change plans. Do you think Pennsylvania will do that?

In 2018, Governor Tom Wolf issued an executive order establishing a Climate Action Plan for the commonwealth. The plan seeks to achieve, by 2025, a 26 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from 2005 levels. It includes a wide variety of proposed actions, including improvements in energy efficiency, increased use of electric vehicles, maintenance of nuclear generating capacity, and investment in solar development. The plan also contemplates development of a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon-dioxide emissions.

Will the passage of certain laws be necessary?

Wolf’s executive order requiring the development of a cap-and-trade program has been met by stiff resistance from parties concerned about the costs and potential adverse economic consequences associated with a carbon tax. In December 2019, members of the Pennsylvania House and Senate referred bipartisan companion bills, known as the Pennsylvania Carbon Dioxide Cap and Trade Authorization Act, to their respective environmental and energy committees. The proposed legislation provides that there is currently no statutory or constitutional authority allowing a state agency to impose a tax on carbon emissions, and requires the General Assembly, in consultation with the DEP and other agencies, to determine whether and how to do so. Regardless of the outcome, any laws dealing with a cap-and-trade program in Pennsylvania are likely to receive considerable attention and require input from environmental lawyers representing all interested parties.

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