July 28, 2005

Congressional Leaders Agree on Terrible Energy Bill (Surprise, Surprise)

America needs a safer, cleaner, and more secure energy future. Sadly, the energy bill that is emerging from the House and Senate conference committee fails on all counts. Instead of cutting America’s oil dependence, boosting production of renewable energy, and lowering energy prices, this bill funnels billions of taxpayer dollars to polluting energy industries, and
opens up our coastlines and wildlands to destructive oil and gas activities. It gives so much money to oil companies, which are reaping record profits, that even the Bush Administration thinks its too much.

All of which makes it essential that Illinois do better. Gov. Blagojevich is close to having a key pillar of a safe and sane energy policy in place with the state's major utilities considering major commitments to providing clean wind power. (Congress rejected a similar proposal for the nation.)

Much more work is needed to clean up the old, coal-fired power plants that are poisoning our lakes with mercury and making life miserable for people with asthma and other respiratory problems. We also need to shift our efforts to build new coal plants with old-school pollution controls toward the much cleaner gasification technologies that level the playing field for Illinois coal and dramatically cut pollution. There have been some moves in this direction, but we still lack scrubbers on our existing plants and Illinois EPA is still approving new plants without the best controls.

Listed below are just a few of the many terrible provisions in the final energy bill that particularly affect Illinois:

New Life For Nuclear?
Illinois has more nuclear power plants and nuclear waste than any state in the nation. Nuclear power has proven to be extremely expensive, a security risk, and a major generator of waste with no safe disposal options. Congress and the Bush Administration are trying to revive the industry with billions of dollars in subsidies to the nuclear industry, including $2 billion risk insurance program for up to six new reactors that was not included in either the House or Senate passed energy bills. The bill also extends the Price Anderson Act for 20 years which limits the nuclear industry’s liability in case of an accident. It also promotes nuclear proliferation by reversing long-standing U.S. nuclear policy against reprocessing waste from commercial nuclear reactors, and using plutonium to generate commercial energy.

Protection For Drinking Water Polluters
Oil companies have now contaminated 20% of America's drinking water supply with MTBE, a gasoline additive. The bill provides “backdoor immunity” to the producers and distributors, of
the likely carcinogenic gasoline additive MTBE by removing MTBE claims from state court to federal court when the claims are based on state tort law, nuisance law, or consumer law. This unfairly deprives injured parties and
their representatives (Illinois water utilities, our Attorney General, etc) of their right to
have their claims heard here in Illinois, and could derail many legal claims entirely, effectively shielding those companies responsible for MTBE contamination from their full financial liability for the damages they have

Pouring Ever More Money Into Coal
Studies show that prioritizing renewables and coal gasification hold the most promise for creating jobs in Illinois. However, the federal bill prioritizes the weakest job creator - old style coal burning with $6 billion in new incentives, and federal loan guarantees to build at least 16 new coal-fired power plants.

It's not all bad. There is a new, permanent ban on oil drilling in the Great Lakes. Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is left untouched by the bill after the House OK'd letting the oil rigs in. (This battle never ends, however. The next key votes will come on the Bush Administration's proposed budget this fall.) But on balance, it gives tankers of taxpayer dollars away to our biggest sources of pollution.

Illinois can do better.

July 19, 2005

ICC Approves Blagojevich's Clean Energy Goals - Now Will Utilities Meet Them?

The Illinois Commerce Commission today largely approved the themes of Gov. Blagojevich's plan to jumpstart the development of clean, safe power sources in Illinois. So can we now count on cleaner air and lower electricity rates from a growing Illinois wind power industry?

Not yet.

To their credit, the Governor's staff worked tirelessly to make the Governor's Sustainable Energy Plan a reality today. However, while the ICC approved the goals of the plan, it essentially made compliance with these goals by Illinois utilities voluntary. Rather than requiring utilities to meet the goals, which begin with getting 2% of power sold from clean sources in 2007 and end with 8% clean power by 2013, the ICC "expects electric public utilities and alternative retail electric suppliers to participate in the Sustainable Energy Plan by filing appropriate documentation to implement the Plan within thirty (30) days".

Will the utilities meet this expectation? The Governor's office has been working hard to reach agreements with them to do just that. All eyes will now be on the power companies' submittals to the ICC in 30 days to see how specific and enforceable their plans will be.

Ideally, we would all be celebrating a guarantee today that pollution levels will begin falling as more and more power comes from the wind, that the new jobs in clean power will soon be created, and that we will have an alternative to the rising rates for nuclear and fossil fuels. Now we need our public utilities to heed the ICC's call, and act in the public interest with specific commitments to reach or even exceed the goals of the Governor's plan.

The battle is far from over, but the Governor and his staff deserve credit for getting to this point - clearly articulated goals, and followup work to see they are met. Unfortunately the ICC did not lock them in with certainty today, and it's not clear what happens next if the utilities' proposals fall short. Whether Illinois will soon be a leader nationally and globally in encouraging 21st century energy sources now seems largely up to them.

July 18, 2005

Quinn Joins Fight Over Proposed Coal Mine In Eagle Habitat

Thanks to Lt. Governor Pat Quinn for lending his support and energy to the fight to stop a proposed strip mine in Banner, Illinois. Local residents, Sierra Club volunteers, and other conservationists have been opposing the proposal along the Illinois River.

Quinn joins conservationists for a press conference this morning in Banner. From his press release:

This Monday, July 18, 10:30 a.m., Lt. Governor Pat Quinn will launch a grassroots initiative to protect an area along the Illinois River from a proposed strip mine which would threaten drinking water as well as habitats of the American Bald Eagle and American White Pelican. Quinn will be joined at the site in Banner, Illinois - some 25 miles southwest of Peoria - by local environmental advocates and elected officials.

"“Rice Lake, Banner Marsh and the Illinois River are too vital to the region for us to allow the devastating effects of strip mining,"” Quinn said. "Strip mining on this site threatens the drinking water of local residents and habitat of eagles, pelicans and fish. It will reduce tourism potential, strain local water treatment systems, and pollute the Illinois River and Copperas Creek."

This area is used each winter by hundreds of American Bald Eagles and is a major rest stop on the migratory flyway of the American White Pelican.

As Lieutenant Governor, Quinn chairs the Illinois River Coordinating Council, which is responsible for protecting the Illinois River and its tributaries. His office supported a project to dredge sediment from Peoria Lakes and ship it to nearby Banner Marsh and helped obtain Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) funding to protect local floodplain land.

As part of a grassroots initiative, Quinn will launch an on-line petition drive (www.SaveOurEagles.org) and offer support to a local petition drive organized by the “Heart of Illinois Sierra Club. He will also release a letter to the Chicago-based mining company urging it to find a more appropriate use for the land.

The mining plan is being pushed by Capital Resources Development Company, which hopes to surface mine a 643-acre tract located between the Rice Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area and the Banner Marsh State Fish and Wildlife Area, a site less than a mile from the Illinois River. Mining operations could drain local wells, pollute water with heavy metals and possibly rupture the Banner sewage treatment plant. "There are appropriate places in Illinois for mining, but this isn't one of them," Quinn wrote in a letter to Capital Resources Development Company CEO Thomas Korman. "I urge your company to re-think this flawed idea."

In addition to American Bald Eagles and American White Pelicans, the site is habitat to great blue herons, ospreys and other magnificent birds. The Rice Lake and Banner Marsh sites offer a range of nature-based tourism opportunities, including bird watching, hiking, biking, fishing, boating and camping. Further, efforts are underway to have nearby US 24 declared a "“Route of the Voyageurs Scenic Byway"”.

"“Nature-based tourism is booming in Illinois, but this strip mine plan sends tourists and eagles packing,"” Quinn said. "“I urge everyone concerned with natural resources such as the Illinois River, wetlands or eagles to let your voices be heard. Sign our online petition, let your public officials know how you feel. We stopped the forces of destruction at Plum Island and we'’re drawing a line in the sand here."

In 2003, Quinn launched an online petition drive to save 83 eagles from the developer'’s bulldozer on Plum Island, an island in the Illinois River near Utica. More than 26,000 people signed the petition forcing the developer to back down with his plan to build 50 luxury condos there.

"“A century ago, President Teddy Roosevelt defined conservation of our nation'’s natural resources as a noble, needed and patriotic thing to do," Quinn said. "“Let us honor his great love of the American outdoors by protecting the American White Pelicans and American Bald Eagles at Banner."

Illinois River issues have been a part of the Lt. Governor's portfolio dating back to Bob Kustra. Each Lt. Gov has used the office to promote the river and initiatives to protect it, but Quinn has used his office to become perhaps Illinois' most visible environmental advocate. His victory at Plum Island also shows that he can make the critical difference by attracting public attention.

Thanks Lt. Gov Quinn!

Clean Water Protections On Hold After Developers Object

The Illinois EPA's proposal to protect clean streams in fast-growing areas suffered a defeat last week, but hopefully the setback is temporary.

Unlike the federal government, where Congress makes laws and the Executive branch is free to make rules to implement them, in Illinois the legislature has a final veto over rules proposed by state agencies. The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules of the General Assembly, or JCAR, must sign off on every new rule issued.

This makes JCAR a frequent target for special interest groups who are unhappy with proposed rules. In this case, a coalition of developers and their allies are apparently unhappy with the proposal by the Illinois EPA to do a better job protecting water quality in rapidly developing suburban areas.

Unfortunately experience has shown around Illinois that when areas grow in population and developed area, water quality suffers. Runoff from development carries pollution into streams, and even new wastewater treatment plants add contaminants to waterways. Currently, IEPA rules don't call for any of these impacts to be taken into account when communities seek approval to extend sewer lines for new development. Instead, IEPA looks at some of these issues many years later, after sewer lines have been built, development is occurring, and a town needs approval to turn on its new sewage plant.

One of the main features of IEPA's new proposal is simply to move this water quality analysis up in the process, so that it is done when sewer lines are extended, when a town is planning its future. This is the best time for a local government to learn about its local water sources, so it can take this information into account when it plans how much and what kind of development it wants, and wastewater treatment for it. Currently, they often get this information late in the game, when many dollars have been spent and irreversible decisions made.

JCAR asked IEPA to go back to the drawing board last week. It was certainly a defeat, but not a resounding one. It was clear that there is a lot of support for the general concept on the Committee. Senator Steve Rauschenberger (R-Elgin), who voiced the objection, also "admonished" the opponents to go back and read the authorizing statute, for it requires IEPA to do many of the things they are objecting to. He thanked IEPA for all the work, and praised large portions of the rule.

Hopefully IEPA can now take another look at the rule, listen one more time with an open mind to opponents and proponents, and come back with a new proposal fairly soon. Many of Illinois' highest quality streams lie in the path of development, particularly in northeastern Illinois, where development is pushing into relatively pristine watersheds of the Kishwaukee, Fox, and Kankakee Rivers, to name a few.

July 11, 2005

Developers Poised to Bulldoze New Clean Water Protections

After more than five years of debate, discussions, and consensus-building, the Illinois EPA this Spring proposed fundamental reforms to the way the state oversees new sewer line extensions. The proposal would protect clean rivers and streams in fast-growing areas, help protect prime farmland from sprawl, and help local governments plan for the future.

The proposal was authorized by legislation that passed without controversy in 2002. Since then, the Blagojevich administration has done a painstaking job of consulting with any and all interested stakeholders. The end product is a proposal that makes simple improvements to a process that has been in place for decades.

Before a growing community gets approval to extend sewer lines for new development, Illinois EPA would consider where the new sewage would go, and what it would do to the river or stream it ended up in. This kind of analysis is required later in the process before opening a new wastewater plant, but doing it at the sewer planning stage will simply give a town more time to plan growth to protect clean water. Also, Illinois EPA would consider whether the area getting sewer service is designated to be protected as farmland, or whether developing it would hurt another community's plans.

Tomorrow is scheduled to be the final step in a long approval process for the proposal, but developers who don't want to worry about what sprawl might do to water quality or prime farmland are waging an all-out effort to kill the proposal at the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules of the General Assembly. The Committee, known as JCAR, must approve all state agency rules before they are final.

If legislators buckle to the clout-heavy developers, Illinois EPA will have to go back to the drawing board to salvage the proposal. Stay tuned.