January 04, 2011

Big Coal Feeding Frenzy In Springfield

As the clock winds down on the lame duck Illinois General Assembly, two out-of-state coal companies are asking to put Illinois ratepayers and businesses on the hook for a bailout of their risky, incredibly expensive projects. The two companies, Tenaska and Leucadia, each have custom-drafted bills they are pressuring the Illinois Senate to approve this week, hoping that Springfield won't look at them like the private market has - like overpriced, risky experiments not worth the gamble.

Both Tenaska and Leucadia offer something Illinois already has in abundance - electricity and natural gas. We already generate more electricity than we consume, so we export power out of state (keeping the nuclear waste and most of the pollution here.) Not only do we not need their product, but they want us to pay at least double the market price for it. Why are we even considering this proposition? Hey, remember, this is Springfield.

Tenaska is looking for money to build their coal plant in Taylorville, southwest of Springfield. Tenaska would finance their project by socking it to the state's largest electric customers - stores, businesses, local governments, hospitals, colleges, and others. For example, CTA riders, University of Illinois students, hospital patients, and local taxpayers would all be asked to pay more. On our electric bill at home, we'll also be chipping in an annual 2% increase to add to the subsidy.

Leucadia wants to build a plant to turn coal and hazardous oil refinery waste into the natural gas we use to heat our homes. Unlike Tenaska, Leucadia proposes to protect businesses from their rate hike, turning to homes and apartments to bear their costs. Some gas bills would go up over $100 per year.

Neither Tenaska or Leucadia have gotten their permits from the Illinois EPA. Neither has a plan in place to deal with the millions of tons of global warming pollution they will add to the air. Those are details they say they'll work out after we're all on the hook - for 30 years.

Proponents say all this cost and all this risk is the price we pay to see whether coal can ever be "clean." (No claims are made that future coal mining will be "clean", or in any way different from the practices that are destroying Illinois farmland and degrading water supplies.) For those who want to see Illinois experiment with coal gasification, the recent growth of Illinois' renewable energy sector is a better model. In jumpstarting our wind and solar industries, the legislature included some key safeguards. First, consumers are protected by a rate impact cap, which ensures that renewable technologies are developed aggressively without price impacts. Second, our renewable energy goals are met by an annual competitive bidding process, encouraging innovation and price competition in the market. Finally, our clean energy laws rely on proven technologies like wind, solar, and geothermal energy, and energy conservation - all ready to deploy without environmental risk.

Those smart safeguards for deploying new energy technologies have already created over 10,000 new jobs in Illinois, and more are in the pipeline. The Tenaska and Leucadia proposals ignore, and contradict, all of those principles. Instead of protecting against rate hikes, increases for every customer in the state, large and small, are hard wired into the two proposals. Instead of encouraging competition to meet a policy goal, these are truly special interest pieces of legislation - they're referred to around the Statehouse as the "Tenaska" and "Leucadia" bills for a reason. When politicians name winners in the marketplace, trouble often ensues. And rather than deploying proven technology, each of these projects are highly speculative, with the greatest uncertainties about whether or how they will deal with the millions of tons of new global warming pollution they will produce each year.

In recent years, the Illinois Senate has been getting a lot right in moving to a clean energy future. This week we'll see if they keep to a path that creates good jobs while protecting ratepayers, or whether they capitulate to big coal's feeding frenzy.

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