If Illinois is to move more quickly into a clean energy future, state Senate President Don Harmon and House Speaker Chris Welch must make it happen. Promptly.
A comprehensive energy bill in the Legislature that would ensure Illinois is doing its part to combat manmade climate change is stalled in a showdown between labor unions on one side and environmentalists and backers of equity in the growing renewable energy industry on the other.
Both sides say they are at an impasse, which is unconscionable at a time when new and more terrifying climate catastrophes are erupting all around us.
Jobs and climate on the line
Organized labor supports subsidies for Exelon that would protect well over 1,000 union jobs at two nuclear plants that are threatened with closure. But the unions also support protecting fossil-fuel-burning jobs, including at the downstate Prairie State coal plant, Illinois’ biggest carbon polluter. So far, organized labor has enjoyed enough support in the Legislature to ensure that no bill can pass without its backing.
But environmentalists, for their part, argue that any bill that keeps fossil-fuel-burning plants open indefinitely is not pro-climate. They have agreed to allow the Prairie State coal plant to remain open for 14 years, and for 10 more years after that if it can capture 90% of its carbon emissions. But they insist that a line be drawn. They want the generation of electrical power in Illinois to be carbon-free by 2050.
Environmentalists are reluctant to give Exelon subsidies to keep nuclear plants running unless the subsidies are part of a significantly more ambitious effort to create a climate-friendly power sector. They also contend that organized labor’s demand for paying prevailing wages on every project in the renewable energy business, large and small, would block minority-owned companies from getting a foothold.
Like organized labor, the environmentalists appear to have the clout to block any bill they oppose. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said he wants a strong pro-climate energy bill.
Federal bailout falls short
On Monday, Exelon warned that a $6 billion federal program to bail out unprofitable nuclear plants won’t keep the energy company from closing the two Illinois plants, at Byron and Dresden, because the federal money would have to be appropriated each year; it could not be counted on. Last week, Exelon filed decommissioning reports for the two plants.
If the two nuclear plants close, the energy they generate likely would have to be generated instead, for now, by power plants that burn natural gas and emit greenhouse gases. As it stands, Byron is scheduled to close in September and Dresden in November. Illinois could see the largest increase in carbon emissions in the country.
The Legislature needs to act this month.
In a letter on Monday to Pritzker and leaders of the General Assembly, Climate Jobs Illinois, a coalition of labor unions, accused environmentalists of negotiating in bad faith. In response, the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, which includes environmental advocacy groups and other stakeholders, argued that it is the unions that keep moving the negotiating goalposts. In his own letter Monday, Pritzker also said “pro-coal” forces have moved the goalposts.
Longing for the days of Madigan
Talks have reached such a low that some negotiators are longing for the days of former House Speaker Michael Madigan. Whenever negotiations on a crucial piece of legislation hit an impasse back then, one negotiator quietly said, Madigan would call everybody together and essentially say, “You get this, you get this and you get this” — and a bill would get passed.
Here’s a sign of how far things have gone off the rails: Illinois has already set aside more than $300 million — money collected from power utility customers — to boost the solar installation industry in the state. But if the money is not appropriated by the end of August, it must be returned. Yet, the Legislature has been unable to agree to free up the money immediately, separately from the larger energy bill discussions, which should be a no-brainer.
On Monday afternoon, Harmon’s office issued a statement saying “the Senate intends to keep discussions going with stakeholders,” suggesting that lawmakers now will play a bigger role in negotiations rather than leave it to labor and environmental negotiators to take the lead.
But that’ll work only if the Legislature’s two top leaders — Welch and Harmon — are willing to twist some arms to achieve a strongly pro-climate bill.