Illinois governor promises to phase out coal, help miners

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, January 25, 2019

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed an executive order yesterday to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, bringing one of America’s largest coal producing states and carbon emitters into a coalition dedicated to upholding the terms of the Paris climate accord.

The move makes Illinois the 18th state to partner with the alliance and fulfills a campaign pledge by Pritzker, who ousted former Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican who largely remained silent on climate issues, in November.

“Today we’re here to make clear this administration will stand on the side of science and of reason,” Pritzker said in a press conference announcing the decision. “We know that climate change is real. We know that it is a threat. I don’t think there’s any disputing that anymore. And we know we must act.”

What Pritzker intends to do to meet the emission targets called for under the Paris Agreement is less clear. Yesterday’s announcement was largely symbolic. The governor repeated his campaign pledge to put Illinois on track to generate all its power from renewable sources by 2050, but his remarks were largely devoid of policy details.

Environmentalists were nevertheless ecstatic at the news, saying it represents a course shift from the Rauner years, when climate issues were essentially shelved in Springfield, the state capital.

“This is a positive step, but for now largely a symbolic one,” said J.C. Kibbey, a renewable energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The lowest hanging fruit in the state to reduce emissions is the power sector. What we’re excited about on that front is the promise he made in the campaign and reiterated today with his pledge go 100 percent renewable.”

Illinois is something of an anomaly among Climate Alliance states for its large coal sector (Climatewire, Oct. 29, 2018). Coal is still used to generate roughly a third of the state’s power, and mining remains a key economic engine for southern Illinois. The region’s coal mines accounted for about 6 percent of U.S. coal production in 2017.

Coal interest groups in the state have long looked for help in Springfield to fix one of their vexing problems: Most Illinois power plants burn coal mined in Wyoming (Energywire, Dec. 21, 2018). That is because the variety of coal found in Illinois is high in sulphur. The state’s coal plants burn the low sulphur coal from Wyoming to comply with the Clean Air Act.

Pritzker offered lukewarm support for such efforts in a question-and-answer session with journalists, noting that he had been to a research center at Southern Illinois University focused on the issue.

“I think we should continue to invest in research in ways to make that more efficacious. But again, burning it, right now anyway, is challenging, which is why most of it gets shipped outside the country, frankly,” Pritzker said.

More broadly, he argued that Illinois needs to help coal reliant communities transition to renewables.

“I have said all along that when you talk about justice, environmental justice, you have to be talking about the change that has occurred already over decades for families that have been dependent on coal-fired plants and the mining of coal,” Pritzker said. “We have to address those folks now, many have been displaced. It is a changing economy that requires the application of real effort by leaders in the state to make sure we create jobs.”

The Paris Agreement calls for reducing emissions 26-28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025. Illinois’ emissions declined 17 percent between 2005 and 2016, according to the most recent federal data. Much of that decrease was attributable to the state’s shift away from coal in the power sector.

In 2016, the state passed a sweeping energy bill that calls for 25 percent of Illinois’ power to come from renewable sources by 2025.

“Obviously, environmentalists are looking for substantive progress in the next four years,” said Howard Learner, who leads the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago. “It’s important to have goals and aspirations, but it’s also important to have action. Most of us believe it is important for Gov. Pritzker to move forward with action to accelerate the growth of Illinois’ clean energy economy.”

The push for 100 percent renewable electricity has become a rallying cry for environmentalists in the state. A coalition of environmental groups and their allies are pushing to decarbonize the electricity sector by 2030 and obtain all the state’s power from renewables by 2050, said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

But it is unclear where energy and climate issues rank on Illinois policy makers to-do list this year. November’s midterm elections brought in a new class of Democrats, many of whom prioritized climate action. At the same time, budget matters and infrastructure are likely to headline this year’s legislative session in Springfield, where Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature, Learner said.

Another question mark is the state’s utilities, which have largely been silent on Pritzker’s call for 100 percent renewables. Vistra Energy Corp., which operates several downstate coal plants, did not respond to a request for comment.

Exelon Corp. operates six nuclear plants in the state, including two that receive state subsidies to stave off closure. The Chicago-based company said it supported Pritzker’s climate aims but did not comment on his 100 percent renewable pledge.

“As the nation’s largest producer of carbon-free energy, we are committed to working with the governor and Illinois policymakers to support innovative policies that reduce air pollution, benefit our customers and protect public health,” Paul Adams, an Exelon spokesman, said in a statement.

Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter, said he was pleased to have a governor who now appears dedicated to tackling the issue.

“I do think Gov. Pritzker is talking about this in a new and bolder way,” Darin said. “I also think he’s being very honest about our existing fossil fleet, which is very old, unprofitable and doesn’t offer long-term certainty for the workers who rely on them. We have to figure out what comes next for those workers, that electricity and those communities. I think that honesty is new and very exciting.”