The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative—widely considered one of the most powerful domestic tools against climate change in the absence of federal action—is poised to extend its geographical reach along the East Coast this year.
RGGI (pronounced “Reggie”) is a regional cap-and-trade program aimed at cutting airborne pollution from power plants by setting a limit on emissions and letting utility companies swap permits to meet goals. A bipartisan group of 10 governors, including Republicans Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and George Pataki of New York, launched the first-in-the-nation program in 2009. Since then, reports have credited RGGI with a sharp drop in carbon dioxide emissions. (According to a Duke University study in 2015, regional emissions would be 24 percent higher without RGGI.) With recent changes in the administrations of New Jersey and Virginia, two more states are gearing up to join the initiative.
“We’ve got a bit of a RGGI boomlet going on,” says Doug O’Malley, director of the nonprofit Environment New Jersey. “It’s really exciting.”
Before taking office in January, New Jersey’s new governor, Phil Murphy, vowed to rejoin RGGI. (Chris Christie pulled the state out of the agreement in 2012.) Virginia is expected to follow suit this summer.
“From the start, it’s been a really robust coalition,” says Georgia Murray, a staff scientist for AMC, which supports RGGI as part of the organization’s mission to protect the environment of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
Although no single regional program could be as effective as coordinated national action to tackle climate change, RGGI’s growth could take some of the sting out of President Trump’s vows to withdraw from the Paris climate pact and to stop the regulatory process that would have set in motion President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Last year, the governors of the nine RGGI states—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont—extended their commitment through 2030 and strengthened the initiative’s antipollution goals.
“With the federal government deciding to ignore climate change, we are dependent on leadership from our states and cities,” says Jordan Stutt, a policy analyst for Acadia Center, a clean-energy research and advocacy organization focused on the Northeast. “These governors are providing the leadership we’re not getting from Washington.”
Before his term ran out in January, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe blasted the federal government for dropping the ball on climate change and issued an executive order for state regulators to create a market-based trading program for power plant emissions. The resulting state regulation was written to make Virginia’s program compatible with RGGI, according to William M. Shobe, a professor of public policy at University of Virginia. The subsequent election of Governor Ralph Northam, a RGGI supporter, paved the way for Virginia to join the program this summer.
Although RGGI regulates only a portion of greenhouse gas emissions (electricity generation produced 29 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, according to the EPA), the program is more than symbolic. “The RGGI states, if they combined their GDPs, would be the sixth-largest economy in the world,” Stutt says. Adding New Jersey and Virginia would bump it up to number four. “This coalition has some serious economic heft. For these states to work together to reduce emissions constitutes a major step forward.”
“It’s really important to get more states involved,” says Deborah Lawrence, a professor of environmental science at University of Virginia. “The more states get involved, the more likely it is we’ll get a national plan.”